THE WORD Transforming for Rio
Graham Sheffield, director of arts at the British Council, on how cultural connections that challenge exclusion and inequality were forged for Rio 2016
Back in the summer of 2012, the UK was basking in the excitement of the London Olympics: in the success of our sporting stars, as well as the glow of the London 2012 Festival: a huge public programme of music, theatre, film and the performing arts, which highlighted the cultural and creative achievements of the UK and was the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad - a four year season of arts and culture events which took place all over the UK. Before the ink had even dried on the UK government’s official analysis of the programme – which confirmed its “huge public impact” - some of those involved in its success, among them, the British Council, were already looking to the future.
Working with Arts Council England and the GREAT Britain campaign, British Council Brazil looked to establish an ambitious new programme which would draw on the success of the Cultural Olympiad not only by celebrating the culture of the host country of the next Olympics but also build international cultural links. Transform, as it was called, looked ahead to Rio 2016 and aimed to change the cultural relationship between the UK and Brazil, creating opportunities for artists and institutions in both countries. It was structured around a belief in the power of the arts to inspire and connect people, to challenge exclusion and assert human dignity; and to emphasise the role of culture in building a sustainable future.
It was officially launched in 2012 at the Rio Film Festival with a screening of an early Hitchcock silent film on Copacabana beach, accompanied by a new score which was performed live by the Brazilian Youth Orchestra. It culminated four years later at the Paralympic Games in Rio, where those initial themes of access and inclusion, creative innovation, and the development of young talent were undiminished.
It is safe to say that in the intervening years, the cultural relationship between Brazil and the UK has changed dramatically. To date, Transform has directly involved 200 arts organisations; as well as 20,000 artists, producers and promoters from both countries taking part in projects in 28 cities across nine states in Brazil – and the areas of arts and culture which have benefitted from the joint efforts of all involved have ranged far and wide.
From those first Hitchcockian strains on the beach, music education has remained a focus of the programme: with initiatives to improve access to music making for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as a series of exchanges which have influenced music education in Brazil’s most populous state, São Paulo, and brought new perspectives to leaders in the field in the UK. The establishment of an Association of Brazilian Orchestras, modelled on its British counterpart, is a direct result of the Transform orchestral leadership initiative; and these long-term currents of exchange formed the background to high-profile events such as a new production of Britten’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a park in Rio de Janeiro in 2013.
Drawing on the first Unlimited Festival, which took place between the Olympics and Paralympics in London in 2012, another distinctive achievement of the Transform programme is the way it has brought arts and disability into the spotlight in Brazil. Various initiatives have brought work by disabled artists into the mainstream, including a partnership with the Janeiro do Espetáculo performing arts festival in Recife and a surprising new circus performance by local artists with disabilities created by GRAEAE’s director Jenny Sealey, artistic director of the 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony and one of the UK’s leading exponents of stunning work involving artists with disabilities.
It is not just through the disability arts that the UK and Brazil have challenged exclusion and inequality. In 2013 Paul Heritage of People’s Palace Projects and Matt Peacock from Streetwise Opera, both UK-based organisations which advance the practice and understanding of art for social justice, met with Brazilian arts organisations, municipal agencies, NGOs and universities, and individuals who have experienced homelessness, to brainstorm ideas for British-Brazilian cultural exchange. As well as producing an influential report, The Art of Cultural Exchange, the collaboration led to the huge success of With One Voice Brazil, a momentous occasion when a chorus - all of them homeless people, from Rio de Janeiro - greeted the Olympic flame at the statue of Christ the Redeemer above the city on the morning the Rio Games began. This daring, optimistic and hugely moving initiative will now follow the Olympic torch to Tokyo in 2020.
The Transform Olympic “season” in Rio de Janeiro, during the Games proper, put on a tremendous show, and one which reflected the ambitious themes of the programme and the network of relationships which it has created. Sports documentaries from the BFI archive going back to the London Olympics of 1908 were shown on screens in public spaces across the city; and Shakespeare’s The Tempest was performed in Portuguese at the official “British House” for the Games (an art school housed in a park), an initiative which formed part of the British Council’s wider Shakespeare Lives series of events in Brazil.
The season also focused on skills development for young people. A series of workshops for theatre technicians, called Backstage to the Future, provided over 30 young people from the UK and Brazil with first class training in theatre skills as well as the opportunity to work on incredible performances by Scottish Dance Theatre and Graeae. This was part of our two-year cultural skills exchange project, Scene Change, which, since 2014, has brought together cultural institutes, students and teachers from both countries via digital technology and international study visits. In December 2014, for example, Brazilian students performed Madame Butterfly at Theatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro. This summer Circus Unlimited (Circo Sem Limites, in Portuguese) worked to provide training and capacity building to ten disabled people in order to qualify as circus artists and to perform at Circo Crescer e Viver during Rio 2016.
In this one initiative alone a vast number of collaborators have been involved: not just the British Council but the Royal Opera House, People’s Palace Projects and High House Production Park in the UK as well as Brazilian partners Theatro Municipal, Spectaculu and FUNARTE.
The range of partners and allies in both countries who have co-funded and co-produced Transform over the last four years is almost unprecedented in terms of international collaboration - agencies such as Arts Council England and Creative Scotland in the UK, the cultural programmes of SESC and SESI and the National Development Bank in Brazil, to mention just a few - and are in themselves a measure of the programme’s huge impact, as well as of the groundwork carefully laid for future collaboration to continue.
The UK and Brazil have both seen major change over the last four years, in one way or another - and most of all within the last few months. What we can be sure of is that we both need friendship and understanding in the world at large and cultural relations are indispensable to that: the texture and depth of the cultural relationship between Brazil and the UK have been transformed in the four years between London 2012 and Rio 2016.