Observations: Our friends up the Amazon

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The Independent Culture

The Young Vic's Amazonia is more than a Christmas show. It is a journey that has taken place over several years and across two continents. In 2006, the theatre's artistic director, David Lan, made his first trip to Brazil with theatre academic Paul Heritage. He visited rural and urban areas and witnessed events ranging from experimental theatre to community shows, parades and dances. An extraordinarily energetic form of dance-drama called quadrilha made a particular impression.

A team was brought together to explore possibilities for making a show inspired by Brazilian culture. At the same time, we recognised that it would be impossible to make work that involved the Amazon without some engagement with the issues of deforestation and climate change. A link emerged: December 2008 would mark the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Chico Mendes, the great Brazilian rubber-tapper turned environmental activist.

In July 2007, a group spent time in Rio de Janeiro and travelled on to the other side of Brazil, to the Amazonian state of Acre – birthplace of Mendes. Joe Hill-Gibbins led a series of workshops on storytelling with local theatre people and Gabby Vautier worked with another group on the theme of theatre without words.

A plan evolved to go back to Acre's capital, Rio Branco, where the quadrilha dance teams were preparing for their annual competition in June. This community on the edge of the forest has been at the centre of climate change politics. Tentatively, we set the dancers the challenge of incorporating ideas about Chico and climate change into their quadrilhas. To our delight, they produced wonderful dances about floods, pollution and rubber-tapper weddings.

Six months later we were back in Brazil, this time for the annual Festa competition. For four nights, we watched as the groups amazed us with the energy and skill of their dances. Bright costumes were decorated with natural materials of the forest, or screen-printed with Chico's face or endangered animals. Songs to celebrate Chico accompanied many dances, and banners proclaimed the need to protect the rainforest. On our last day in Rio Branco, one team invited us to their tree-planting, the follow-up to a community clean-up initiative; a delightful and moving conclusion to our stay.

Debra Hauer is producer of 'Amazonia', at the Young Vic, London SE1 (020-7922 2922; www.youngvic.org) to 24 January

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