“The ground is always shaking in Rosa’s stories. You can never step on the ground and say: ‘I’m here’—because it’s always moving.”
I was interviewing David Treece for the first time, and I asked him if he had suggestions as to new ways in which one might go about (re)introducing the work of JGR to the English-speaking world. Immediately he mentioned flamingofeather; he described their theatrical adaptation of Guimarães Rosa’s work, entitled Three Places, as “a bilingual piece which moved seamlessly between Portuguese and English and back again; one that was true to the very poetics of Guimarães Rosa’s work.”
flamingofeather is a physical theater company based in London. Founded by Ilana Gorban (Brazil) and Simon Rice (Britain) in 2007, the company uses an inter-disciplinary approach to devise original work in a flexible collaborative process, searching for the vulnerable ground from which the work can evolve and take shape. Collaborations start without a preconceived method so that the creative practice evolves within the process.
I recently visited Ilana and Simon at their home in London where we discussed their 2010 production of Three Places, and the work of João Guimarães Rosa. I would like to thank David Treece for introducing us.
Simon Rice meets me at the train station, and we walk to the apartment where he lives with his partner in both life and art, Ilana. Along the way, we pass The Vortex, a jazz bar tucked into a residential block in Dalston. Simon tells me that recently a string of Brazilian musicians have played at the club, and that that’s why he loves areas like Dalston so much: the culture.
It’s a short three-block walk to the apartment where Ilana is expecting us.
Naturally, when we arrive we begin by discussing the little things that all strangers discuss: the weather in cities in parts of the world, sunups and sundowns, where we were born, where we go, what we do, and then: dinner was served: a traditional Mineiro dinner: rice and black beans with steamed vegetables and fresh manioc flour sent straight from Minas Gerais.
As we took our seats, poured wine, proceeded to take our first bites, Ilana began:
“Something a lot of Brazilian’s say is: What if he wrote in another language? Most people would have read Grande Sertão by now. Like Joyce, or a French writer that everyone reads everywhere.”
Thus began our conversation. Me from San Diego, Simon from London, and Ilana from São Paulo: João Guimarães Rosa.
Three Places was produced by flamingofeather as the theatrical adaptation and hybridization of two short stories, “Soroco, sua mãe, sua filha” and “Partida do audaz navegante”, by João Guimarães Rosa. Both stories were originally published in the collection Primeiras Estórias (1962), but have most recently been translated into English (“Soroco, His mother, His Daughter”, and “The Audacious Mariner Sets Sail”) in The Jaguar & Other Stories (Treece, 2001).
Three Places was presented at Birkbeck College, University of London in 2010 with the support of the Brazilian Embassy in London and it was conceived in 2008 during the celebration of João Guimarães Rosa’s centenary in London.
Felipe: It was really interesting to hear what you were saying about not necessarily adhering to the text, pulling it apart, making it your own. I don’t think Rosa would have objected to it necessarily, because, by my understanding, he believed there was something bigger to be communicated, beyond the words as he had written them down, in other ways, through other languages—I think theater is another language, a new way to say what Rosa said.
Ilana: Well, in the beginning, when we were combining the stories, we didn’t change any words, either in the English or the Portuguese. We wanted to see those words transposed into a new context. But you can’t just transpose Literature to the stage, because, then: why do it? So we began talking [out loud to one another], and the story created itself.
Simon: We deconstructed the stories, but you don’t want to abuse something that beautiful, so we were as careful as possible. At the same time, we wanted to create something original…but with that essence.
Ilana: A theatrical piece has to be complete in itself, not relying on whether you read the story or not.
Felipe: It’s in both Portuguese and English, so you both wrote?
Simon: In most of our work, we usually direct each other, which is good, because we serve as an outside eye when we’re working. On this occasion I directed, but we decided together how each language would serve Three Places.
Felipe: And your method, do you use Corporeal Mime? I think I could see that working well with Rosa.
Ilana: I don’t think we ever use a method as a starting place.
Simon: Our methods are much more instinctual. True, we have training in various methods, but we don’t adhere to any one. We like every piece to be fresh, and this piece is informed by Rosa’s texts.
Felipe: How did you prepare?
First we had to search for funding, as we wanted to go to Minas Gerais, because we wanted to begin creating from Minas Gerais. We wanted to be there just as we began to think about the actual piece, but we didn’t get any funding.
Simon: On our own trip to Brazil, we went to the University of São Paulo and we visited with Sandra Vasconcelos. She is the curator of Rosa’s archives [at the Institute of Brazilian Studies, USP], and she gave us a tour of the archives where we got to look at Rosa’s original notebooks. The doodles were fascinating. Just as meaningful as the words it seemed. When we came back to the UK, there was a period I just spent alone with the texts, and slowly I began to pull here, adjust there, and once I had a structure I felt worked well, Ilana came in to help with the Portuguese. And we worked together from there.
Ilana: A big question was, when do we use English, and when do we use Portuguese? It was very important that people, even if they couldn’t understand one of the languages, could understand more or less what was happening. You don’t want people to feel left out, but I don’t think they did. Even if you don’t speak a language, sometimes you understand things on another level, and that was the physicality of the piece itself, the movements, and reactions, our facial expressions, the tones.
Felipe: Was Sandra involved in Three Places at all?
Ilana: She spoke at the event in London, she gave a lecture on the poetics of Rosa, and on the backlands. And she was there along the way too. When we told her about the project, she said yes, she loved the idea, but she said: I have to read it. When we sent it to her, I was nervous, and she only made one comment, which made us go back to the work and move one block to a moment before, and we liked it much better. We thought it made it a more round work.
Simon: Yes, we wanted that, we wanted her input, and she was extremely helpful, and it was just good to know that she was behind the work. The first time we showed it to anyone, it was to Sandra and David, and this was very important for us, because here were two scholars who had been writing and thinking about Rosa’s work, and we weren’t sure how they were going to react. It feels almost sacrilegious to touch a piece like that with the Rosa specialists in the room.
Felipe: How was David Treece involved?
Simon: I don’t know Portuguese, but after I read David’s translations, I immediately developed a great sense of respect for not only Rosa, but for David as well. Just what he was able to do is amazing, and he was a great help in the sense that, like Sandra, we knew he was behind us. When we finished the script, we sent it to him, and this was before the rehearsal, and he must have liked it, because he didn’t make any suggestions; he came to the rehearsal, and afterwards, he decided to use the performance as a starting point for his lecture, which was just great for us, because then we got to hear what he was thinking, out loud.
Felipe: Let’s talk about the two languages used. What differences did you notice between the two, and what challenges did you face in producing Three Places?
Ilana: English is more synthetic. If I were to translate an English essay into Portuguese, most of the sentences would be longer. Portuguese is more prolix. We go around more, and English is more to the point; and when we were writing, we had to think about that. We thought about the sounds when you speak out loud, the melody, and the rhythm.
Simon: The music of language. English is just more practical, I think, in comparison to Portuguese. Portuguese is more poetic; for example, in Portuguese there is a word for the way one strokes another’s hair when it’s tied to a certain emotion. In English it’s: ‘Stroking one’s head like…this or that.’ We had to think about all of this when we were writing the piece.
Ilana: I think David really managed to work with some very complex language very well. I believe it comes from his great understanding of music. I’m sure it influences how he reads words and hears words spoken.
Simon: Yes, his text is very musical. And music in general is very important to the work.
Ilana: We were actually joined by a musician for Three Places. Thomas Rohrer is Swiss born, based in São Paulo, and he played the rabeca, a Brazilian fiddle, similar to a viol, played in the Sertão of Minas Gerais. He played both music and sound effects for the production. The music is very connected to the work.
Felipe: What was it like taking on the work of a giant like João Guimarães Rosa?
Ilana: In the beginning, something we discussed a lot was: how do you create a theatrical work based on such big concepts, concepts that encompass all big questions of human issues, of being a human being or of being alive? So we started by discussing each story individually, but we found that all of them went very deep thematically, and each time we talked about a different story in a new way, we found that that story, too, went back to those very same themes.
Simon: The essence. I always felt our job was to find the essence. What is the thing that occurs in all the stories? They’re all the big things of journeying through life, and of loss—and lots of books deal with those things, but not the way Rosa’s do.
Felipe: I know you only used two short stories, but the title, Three Places, is it a reference to the Third Bank of the River?
Ilana: Yes, of course! The third bank is the inbetween. We deal a lot with the inbetween. It is the nospace that at the same time is there. You cannot get there, and you cannot understand, and, at the same time, you cannot get away from it, you cannot leave it behind.
Simon: The thing about Rosa’s stories that I love is that there is something in every story that you can’t define. He places everything before you, but he leaves you, always, with something that is indefinable. We may know what it’s like to be in a boat, in the water, between two shores, but it’s far more than that.
Felipe: How did you feel about it all when it was finished?
Simon: I was very happy, because I know that a lot of people went to the performance, and they didn’t know Rosa. Some of them did of course, but the majority, I think, were experiencing his work for the first time. I know many people bought David’s book because of the performance, and because of the lectures given by Sandra and David. They wanted to know who Rosa was.
Ilana: I know a good friend of ours, who isn’t involved with literature; she came, and afterwards she told me she found everything to be so passionate, and that she had to buy the book to see where all this was coming from. And the people who did know Rosa’s work were so excited to see it alive, and I think they appreciated it.
After dinner, Simon and Ilana and I sit around Ilana’s laptop and look at photos of the performance together while we share stories about Rosa’s stories. We thank one another for the work we’ve attempted. Simon and Ilana tell me they’d love to work with Rosa again, and I tell them I hope they do.
We walk back to the train station, and along the way we pass the Vortex again. We stop for a moment to watch the people in the windows in the balconies, and listen to the glasses, spoons, mugs clanking, people talking. Three people from three places: João Guimarães Rosa.