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The Sights and Voices of Dispossession: The Fight for the Land and the Emerging Culture of the MST (The Movement of the Landless Rural Workers of Brazil)


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Emerging culture by media type -> Theatre 21 resources (Organized by Malcolm McNee. Translation © Else R P Vieira.)

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Malcolm McNee


The performative arts of the MST: The symbolic power of bodies in movement.

With the exception of music, performance arts are perhaps the most organic, diverse and widespread medium of artistic expression in peasant communities. In this sense, MST has provided an important space for the preservation, development, and/or experimentation with other forms of performance art. As captured in these photos, two particularly dynamic forms include dance and theatre. These two forms explore the symbolic power of the corporal gesture. As Edgar Kolling, of the MST's Culture and Education Sectors, has remarked, "The strength of peasants is not often in verbal speech. Their force is in their gestures, in the language of their bodies, their arms and hands, in which their physical work is inscribed".[i]

The first group of photos - Theatre as a Rehearsal for Life -- is of a theater project in the southern state of Paraná. Through a partnership with the International Festival of Londrina (FILO), 17 farmers aged12 to 60 from the Dorcelina Folador Land Reform Settlement in Arapongas began a series of theater workshops in January 2001 with Bya Braga, theater professor from Belo Horizonte, and Adriano Moraes, of the FILO organizing committee. The end result of these workshops, that took place at the Settlement, was the performance for the May 2001 FILO Festival of Our Bakery, a theatrical exercise drawing on the lived experience of the MST farmers as well as German dramatist Bertolt Brecht's play The Bakery. The original text, which dramatizes the struggle for daily survival of urban unemployed that coalesces around a bakery, was adapted to portray the difficult reality of the rural settlement, with the personal rhythm of each actor reflecting the rhythms of nature, of planting and harvesting. As shown in the images of the vibrantly beautiful bull, the group also drew on elements of popular culture traditions ofrural Brazil, in this case, the Dancing Bull (Boi Bumbá). The model for the staging of the play illustrates the desire of the group to take theatrical practice outside of the structural confines of the fixed theater and bring it to other land reform encampments and settlements, where the land itself becomes their stage.

The second group of photos – Rhythms of the Land – offer an introduction to the incredible diversity of rhythms and dances in the northeastern state of Pernambuco. The majority of these photos are of performances by and for children and adolescents from MST settlements and encampments at a state-level congress of Landless Youth (os Sem Terrinha) that took place in Recife in 2000. In addition to demonstrating an openness to cultural forms relatively new to Brazil, such as rap and break-dancing, these photos illustrate the MST's profound roots in ethnically and regionally diverse expressions of rural and urban traditions. Here, the legacies of Afro-Brazilian, Indigenous, and Luso-Brazilian popular cultures, and their infinite cross-fertilizations and mixtures, are beautifully and democratically displayed as elements of Landless identity and pride in Pernambuco. Among the various dance traditions here presented arexaxado, coco do sertão, maracatu, and capoeira. Xaxado recalls the outlaw culture of the cangaceiros, the 'social bandits' (to use Hobsbawm’s term) who roamed the arid, northeastern backlands during the 19th and early 20th centuries, threatening the authoritarian rule of landlords and corrupt politicians. Coco is said to have originated as a work song in sugar mills, with the noise of the stones crushing the cane providing the rhythm. It was later transformed into a variety of dances, including the beach coco (coco praiano), exclusive to male dancers, and, as in the photo here included, desert coco (coco do sertão), a sensual, circle dance for couples. Maracatu is a carnival dance dating back to the 18th century with extravagantly dressed kings, queens and their courts celebrating the nobility of Afro-Brazilians despite their degraded condition under slavery. Finally capoeira, is an Afro-Brazilian martial art that involves intricate rhythms and carefully choreographed ceremony and that was officially banned in Brazil until the 1930s.

The final groups of photos of performance arts in the MST are of the Life in Art (Vida em Arte) Theater Group from the Rondinha Land Reform Settlement in Jóia, Rio Grande do Sul. This group was formed in 1998 and involves the participation of 16 farmers, ranging in age from 12 to 32. After initial work with plays by Arnaldo Jabor and Alberto Siqueiras, the Life in Art group began a series of workshops with Túlio Quevedo, in partnership with the State Secretary of Culture. With the objective of developing the critical and creative capacity of the participants and arriving at a collectively authored text and performance, the 8 month-long period of workshops involved body awareness exercises, improvisational games, set and prop design, and the research and adaptation of texts, gestures, andmaterials expressive of the daily reality of the settlement. In April 2000, this work resulted inthe first public presentation of the Life in Art Theater Group's first authored play, Return to the Earth. It was presented to their own community, on the Rondinha settlement, with MST activists and farmers from nearby settlements also in attendance. Return to the Earth explores the lives of a number of individuals who, dispossessed from the land, find each other in an urban plaza. There is a father desperate to find his daughter who is considering turning to prostitution, a young man struggling to get by as a street vendor, and another that decides that dealing drugs is his best option for survival. As they reflect upon their circumstances in a difficult and dehumanizing urban context, they begin to realize that by returning to the countryside they may be able to re-construct their dignity, hopes for a better life, and respectful relationships with others. As evident in the photos, the play also incorporated carnivalesque elements of popular theater, such as stilts, banners, and a musicalized narration.


[i] Interview with the author by Malcolm McNee, Porto Alegre, February 21, 2001.


November 2002

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Compiled by Else R P Vieira. Translation © Thomas Burns.

MST - Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra/ Movement of the Landless Agrarian Workers
'Foundation: On January 4, 1984, the MST was set up as a national movement, after a long period of struggle (1979-1983) located in several states. It was founded during the 1st National Meeting of the MST (q.v.), which took place in Cascavel, Paraná, January 21-14, 1984. At this meeting, the general objectives, the main demands, and the forms of organization and struggle were defined. Leadership of the land-struggle from thirteen states in Brazil took part.

General Objectives:

1 — For the land to be only in the hands of those who work it;

2 — To fight for a society without exploiters and the exploited;

3 — To be an autonomous mass movement within the union movement to achieve agrarian reform;

4 — To organize rural workers at the bases;

5 — To encourage the participation of the rural workers in unions and political parties;

6 — To be dedicated to the formation of leaders and to build a political leadership of workers;

7 — To connect with urban workers and workers from Latin América.


1 — Legalization of the worker-occupied lands;

2 — Establishement of a maximum area for rural properties;

3 — Disappropriation of all latifundia;

4 - Disappropriation of lands belonging to mulitnational companies;

5 — Demarcation of indigenous lands, with the resettlement of poor occupants in areas of the region;

6 — Investigation and punishment of all crimes committed against rural workers;

7— End of government incentives and subsidies to Proálcool and other projects that benefit the landowners;

8 — Change of government agricultural policies to give priority to the small farmer;

9 — Immediate extinction of the GETAT and the GEBAM;

10 - End of the colonization policy' (Calendário Histórico dos Trabalhadores. São Paulo: MST, Setor de Educação. 3a. edição, 1999, pp. 19-20). 

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