Alice Ripoll: Zona Franca at Southbank Centre
Zona Franca (translating as “free zone” from Portuguese) is the latest creation by Brazilian choreographer Alice Ripoll. Combining an eclectic mix of contemporary dance, contact improvisation, afro-house, funk and passinho (a mix of pop, funk and break dancing), alongside visual art, vocalisations and moves inspired by TikTok, this performance is like nothing you’ve ever seen. Created against a backdrop of political unrest and COVID-19, Zona Franca is both fun and unnerving.
The performers flow together with intimate ease, rolling over and under each other, standing on each other, and being thrown and caught by each other. One striking image is when three of the performers are on hands and feet, crawling across the stage in a human centipede shape before they begin rolling backwards together to create a free-flowing entity.
Many of the sequences were born out of improvisation, and Ripoll takes a collaborative, blank-slate approach to her choreography, preferring to discover what unfolds rather than following a strict plan. This way of working stands out in the finished performance because Zona Franca feels free and playful in a refreshing way. There is a childlike quality to the piece, which is enhanced both by outlandish, often funny stylistic choices but also by the familial comfort the dancers clearly feel with each other.
The set design contributes to this playful atmosphere by giving the performers props reminiscent of childhood. There are black balloons hanging from the ceiling, and at various moments in the show, someone runs around with a pitchfork, pops them and, like a pinata, objects fall from the burst balloons. Sometimes it’s multicoloured confetti, others it’s toxic green-coloured smoke, and at one point flashing, colourful small balls fall to the floor, serving as toys and decorations for the rest of the evening.
Zona Franca pushes boundaries on what you would expect to see: there are the more traditional dance numbers, performed with impressive prowess, and then there are times when someone runs around naked while three performers make wounded bird squawks, or someone rides a bicycle while people jump on one another. At one point, one of the female dancers sits in a wide split on a table wheeled on by another dancer, back to the audience, and twerks her butt cheeks in perfect time to the music, isolating each part in a way which makes the audience laugh but is also incredibly impressive.
Some avant-garde dance shows rely on the shock or weird factor to subdue the viewer into thinking that if they didn’t like the show, they just didn’t get it. Zona Franca isn’t like that. It genuinely feels like an open exploration of movement, play, silliness and imagery. The performers are very talented and get to show their skills off, and some of the best bits of the night are the more out-there moments when they’re making other-worldly noises and leaping around covered in balloons. Zona Franca doesn’t strive to make you feel or think something: it just is, and that makes it all the better.
Image: Renato Mangolin
Alice Ripoll: Zona Franca is at Southbank Centre from 2nd until 4th November 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.