Seeing Brazil’s Grupo Corpo at Meany Hall last week (Feb. 3), back for their fifth visit, evoked memories of the extraordinary dancing I saw in two trips to Brazil, most especially Rio de Janiero, the countryside several hours distant, and the neighborhoods of the northeastern city of Salvador, the center of Afro-Brazilian culture.
Whether spontaneously on the streets or beautiful beaches, in parades and community social clubs, or as part of the ceremonies of indigenous religions, dance was an integral part of people’s lives, with multiple purposes and meanings. The ease and freedom of bodies, and the collective celebratory nature of movement, came as a revelation to me.
I was looking forward to my first viewing of the 19-member company, which was founded in 1975 by its artistic director Paulo Pederneiras, as over the years the buzz has been strong. And I wondered how this contemporary dance troupe might link to the traditions and movements of its complex and multi-ethnic country.
It didn’t take very long to find out from the first piece, “Parabelo,” a 1997 work by the company’s choreographer, and Paolo’s brother, Rodrigo Pederneiras — one that he calls his “most Brazilian and regional creation.” The score by Tom Zé and José Miguel was said to evoke “the pastoral side” of Brazil, and the first image is of dimly lit bodies sitting on the stage floor as if rooted to the earth. Rising, they soon take simple steps right on the music’s beat, with swaying hips and supple backs conveying a sense of the languorous walks one might find in the countryside.
As the work progressed, more of the movement vocabulary was revealed, including body isolations playing one part against another, small and rapid syncopated steps, turns, bent legs lifted in the air drawn from ballet, and that undulating torso, back to front and side to side, so typical of African-influenced dance and often combined with the head briefly thrown back, an exultant punctuation to the lively body.
The multi-sectioned score was meant to “echo” devotional chants and is informed by baiao, rural rhythms originally from the northeast of Brazil. The most appealing and choreographically inventive sections of the piece were a striking duet in which Helbert Pimenta, using only his right arm for almost the entire time, ingeniously partners Silvia Gasparand, her feet barely ever touching the ground and her body pitched out at various planes to his. Rather than seeming manipulative, the imagination of the choreography gave it a mesmerizing poetry. Another lovely section, a charming one that most evoked rural folk idioms, had the performers entering as three trios, each with their arms overlapping inventively, and embracing each other in a show of communal cohesion.
Grupo Corpo is known not only for brilliant and exuberant dancing, but also for striking stage design. In “Parabelo,” most exemplary were two sets of projections on the back scrim by Fernando Velloso and Paulo Pederneiras. The first a set of giant heads facing forward and back, the second a nostalgic montage of what appeared to be real photos of people and events in rural life. I don’t know what the heads meant to the designers, but for me they were reminiscent of those on santos, the wooden carvings of saints found in Spanish and Portuguese colonial churches.
The second offering, after an intermission, was 2009’s “Ima,” about the “interdependence and complementarity of human relationships.” Its music by +2 had a jazzier sound than the more folky “Parabelo,” but was similar to it in having a number of predominantly percussive segments, rather than a connected thread of sound.
The stage design by Pablo Pederneiras was superb in its simplicity and allure. Over the course of the dance, the side wings, back scrim and the dancing space itself were enveloped in a shifting set of bright, distinctive colors that seemed to evoke the many facets of the relationships being portrayed, with performers dressed in simple costumes whose solid hues acted as counterpoint to the lighting.
Superb performance and rich movement is the strength of this company. Judging only from these two works, the choreography itself is not. Pederneiras sets out his intent for each dance in the company’s program notes, and introduces them thematically at the beginning of each work. For a good portion of both we get insinuations of the concept within its formal structure.
At about the same point in each, maybe two-thirds through, the choreographer goes a bit too movement-bonkers, and the cohesion of the dance becomes chaos, and the works lose their way as the dancers fly around the stage in a blaze of movement, in “Parabelo” with colorful and busy costumes to match. Part of this may be the choreographer becoming too enamored of his own movement, or perhaps too slavish to the tyranny of the beats of the heavily percussive scores. Whatever the cause, the works suffer from a collapse of clarity.
While I was initially intrigued by the movement vocabulary, it became repetitious, perhaps intentionally so in “Parabelo.” Many people opine that folk dances, most rural in origin, can be more fun to do than to watch because of the limited palette of steps. However, much of “Ima’s” movement and structure seemed interchangeable with that of “Parabelo,” despite the fact that they were different thematically and created 12 years apart. In “Ima” I did sense the choreographer trying to stretch with certain movements taken from other genres such as hip hop, but they didn’t feel quite yet authentic to his style, as if he were trying them on for size.
The Pederneiras brothers have created an extraordinary company, one that is a pleasure to behold for its dancing and design. If the show I saw is an indicator of their current repertoire, then perhaps now might be a good time to bring in other voices to create choreography that can expand their vision as a distinctive Brazilian voice, and bring new challenges to their beautiful performers.