In the vast tapestry of human expression, football emerges as a dynamic art form, weaving together personal and shared histories, while simultaneously serving as a platform for the exploration of belonging, identity, and the nuances of the human body. Within the confines of the pitch, a profound narrative unfolds, where every movement, every pass, and every goal represents a stroke on the canvas of collective experience. Football serves as a repository of commonalities, transcending geographical and cultural boundaries. From the streets of Rio de Janeiro to the fields of Manchester to the parking lots of Jakarta or the pitches in Lagos, the echoes of triumphs and defeats resonate, intertwining the narratives of individuals and communities. 

The football pitch becomes a crucible where bodies react and are shaped, not only physically but also emotionally and psychologically. Here, the pursuit of excellence transforms individuals, moulding them into embodiments of strength, agility, and endurance. Yet, beyond the physical sport, football cultivates a sense of belonging and identity, offering a sanctuary where differences are celebrated and individuality is embraced.

Within the vibrant mosaic of football culture, the body becomes a conduit for expression, transcending linguistic barriers and societal divides. Through graceful dribbles, precise passes, and synchronized movements, players communicate with a fluency that goes beyond words, forging connections that defy cultural boundaries. In this shared space, players and spectators alike are united in a symphony of movement and emotion.

Despite its universal appeal, football grapples with issues of discrimination and exclusion that are yet to be resolved. Underpinned by impulses that range from the fierce determination to win a competition to nationhood fever, the game evolved to be one of the most tangible terrains of exclusion for bodies that don’t correspond to rigid gender norms. It is in this same arena, however, that efforts are made to confront prejudice and create a space that can empower marginalized voices. Through initiatives aimed at inclusivity and equality, football has the potential to inspire social change and challenge ingrained biases. Ballet of the Masses: On Football and the Theatre of Collective Body Making opens a space of reflection on the possibilities football—as well as other sports—offer for transcending the individualistic ambition to win in favour of collective embodiment and joyful experience as the game expands out from the pitch to the stands of the field, the streets, the bars, households, and different social spaces where all fans come as one. It aims at the empowerment of a multiplicity of bodies that are able to assert their existence. While football is often synonymous with competition and victory, its true essence lies beyond the scoreboard. Within the hallowed grounds of the stadium, the collective body surpasses individual ambition, weaving a quilt of camaraderie and solidarity. Here, the beauty of the game lies not in triumph alone, but in the shared experience of striving, failing, and persevering together. 

As visitors navigate the space of Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), they can experience the transcendental aspect embedded into The Playground of All Possibilities, an installation by Joël Andrianomearisoa offering a space to dream about all the potentialities that lie within an archipelago of bodies and living species when they come together as one. Questions related to harmful masculinity patterns and the cultures they help institute are unpacked through the performances of La Fracture by Yasmine Yahiatène, Smoke Machine, Lion and Jeep by Romeo Roxman Gatt as well as El Plan by Juan Betancurth, who all approach gender discrimination through personal stories that consider the social limitations imposed by the parameters of the sport. Echoing these themes, Portent by Eddie Peake, comprises a match between a group nude players and contests, along with many other performances in the programme, traditional expectations in regard to gender and bodies. 

Pursuing the ambition for football as a practice to be a space that engages with anti-discrimination, solidarity, commonality, and community building, cultural anthropologist David Edgar’s proposition Turning Football into an Anti-discriminatory Practice—A Beautiful Game in a Society in Conflict is to hold a space for not only playing but, most importantly, for processing and overcoming social challenges; work currently done by a selection of sport associations locally and internationally. This frame for conversation and practice serves as a space that allows for vulnerability, solidarity, and catharsis through collective embodiment. The Ballet of the Masses programme also hosts two moments of story-telling that allow for discursive exchange. The first, Ballet of the Masses: On Football and Catharsis, Culture, Economy, Health, History, and Politics, is a Kongossa—a format that follows the trajectory of information that circulates via rumour—with writers and football connoisseurs Marcela Mora y Araujo and Musa Okwonga. The second, Ceremony Found: Tracing Polyrhythms in the African Diaspora takes the form of a lecture performance on the history of Gumbe rhythms, which were born in the Caribbean and brought back to the African continent by freed enslaved people. These rhythms in turn influenced various musical genres, including Assiko, which grew to become a celebratory practice at football matches in countries like Angola, Cameroon, Guinea, Mail, Nigeria, and Senegal, among others. The history of Gumbe is told by Jamaican master drummer Ras Happa, accompanied by researchers and London-based drum circle founders Véronique Belinga and Christxpher Oliver. 

HKW’s performative practices programme as a whole takes up the invitation to look at football through different lenses that counter competitive endeavours and rather aim to bring together beings for collective transcendence and dreaming. Ballet of the Masses seeks out football’s potential as a theatre in which cultural issues can be brought to the forefront and societal norms challenged. From manifestations of multiplicity to protests against injustice, the pitch becomes a terrain upon which the complexities of the human experience intertwine. Across the globe, football cultures vary widely, reflecting the richness of collective bodily experience. From the passionate fervour of South American crowds to the tactical precision on show within European leagues, each locale brings its own flavour to the beautiful game. Yet, amidst these differences, universal themes of resilience, passion, and unity resonate, bringing players and fans in a shared celebration of the human spirit. As this programme demonstrates, football emerges not merely as a sport, but as a living, breathing artwork, a testament to the power of the human body and the complexities of collective body making.