In 2015, in an act of protest about proposed cuts and closures, a group of students occupied their school in São Paulo. More than 200 occupations followed. It became a movement. The young people cooked for each other and arranged their own lessons. They made the state government listen to their demands.
Now a group of 15 of those young people have made a show about their experiences. When It Breaks It Burns is both a recreation of the occupation and an extension of it. It captures the heat, the hope, the very real fear of arrest and violence, the thrill of proximity, and the anger these young people felt about systems that excluded the poor and entrenched inequality, their determination to forge a better world.
We begin sitting on a cluster of black plastic chairs in the middle of the room with the performers sitting among us. Slowly they begin to move, bounding between us, shunting us out of the way when necessary as they take over the space.
On one level the show consists of a series of a dance sequences, a mixture of movement and music, but that’s too simple a description. The power of the piece is more intangible – a heady adolescent energy, a sense of collective potential.
Eventually the chairs are swept out of the way and turned into a barricade, the audience moved to the sides of the room as the performers engage in an exhilarating dance-off. Later they talk directly to us about the protests, what they learnt from them and how they were changed by them.
While this is a piece about occupying public spaces, it’s also about occupying bodies. They describe what it is to take up space as a young black person, living with the knowledge that the first people to get arrested will almost certainly be black. They discuss how central their hair is to their sense of identity and heritage.
For every explosive moment, there is one of tenderness, islands of calm among the slogans and sirens; a kiss becomes a moment of queer celebration and defiance of Brazil’s overtly homophobic president Jair Bolsonaro.
The form of the show – participatory, active, giddily alive – is key to its power. The audience plays a vital role, but as Battersea Arts Centre now operates a relaxed venue policy, it is also possible for people to sit and observe and still experience its energy.
Coletiva Ocupação has created something astonishing here: a raw, rousing, questioning and kinetic piece of theatre that, in its final potent moments, spills out on to the streets. When It Breaks It Burns is an act of global call-and-response and a reminder that while this is their story and they’re telling it, it is ours too.