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Brazilian Dance in Wales - Corpo in Context     

Brazilian Dance in Wales - Corpo in Context Seeing Grupo Corpo in Wales this October prompted a re-visiting of the early years of modern dance in Brazil and a look at the state of the art form in the country that generated this exceptional company. Welsh audiences may not have realised it when they saw this dance highlight at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, but Brazil's Corpo is one of the longest established and most consistent contemporary dance companies in South America, in terms of both quality and continuity, and a foremost example of the dynamic modern dance movement that has been growing in the region since the 1950's.

But before this contemporary beginning there was the classical ballet movement, which began as early as the 1920's in the wake of visits to South America by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes: in Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires, the Colon Theatre's resident ballet company opened their first season in 1925 with Fokine's Petrouchka and massive input from Adolf Bolm and later Bronislava Nijinska, both of the Diaghilev company. In Brazil's Rio de Janeiro, Maria Olenewa, a principal dancer with the companies of ex Diaghilev stars, Anna Pavlova and the ubiquitous Leonide Massine, founded Rio's Teatro Municipal ballet school in 1927, mounting a first season at this Paris Opera style theatre in 1936. She had already done important work preparing dancers at Buenos Aires' Teatro Colon ballet school from 1922 to '24 (as well as wowing Argentine audiences with her Dance of the Seven Veils in Richard Strauss's opera Salome, conducted by the composer). In 1944, Olenewa went to Sao Paolo to direct a school at that city's municipal theatre, seeding the first classical dance activity there. In Uruguay's capital Montevideo, the Sodre ballet company began in 1935 and in Chile's capital, Santiago, the resident company at the elegant little Teatro Municipal was founded in 1959, becoming the Ballet de Santiago. Also, Chile's first modern dance company was founded in this capital in 1940 by Ernst Uthoff (who stayed behind in Santiago after touring there with the great German expressionist choreographer Kurt Jooss) this became The Ballet Nacional Chileno, still working today.

The first murmurings of a contemporary dance movement in Brazil may have started over a decade earlier, but it was in the 1970's that things really got going, hence Grupo Corpo - now thirty nine years old - was founded in 1975, not in Rio or São Paolo but in Belo Horizonte capital of Minas Gerais, the old gem and gold mining state of Brazil. Mineiros (miners), as those from the state are called, are respected throughout the country as hard-working and serious about what they do, the people and the state that get things done, and Grupo Corpo in every sense epitomises the Mineiro spirit. Founded by the Pederneiras family, five siblings plus relatives and friends with the common aim of starting a dance company, they took over the family house in Belo Horizonte to administer and create their first works. "Corpo" (meaning both corps and body) continues to be a family concern and is headed by the two brothers, Paolo, stage and lighting designer, as well as artistic director and business brain of the outfit, and Rodrigo, who is the choreographer of almost all the company's work. For this year's UK tour Paolo has posted an article on the Dance Consortium website tracing the company's history, with truly Brazilian generosity he acknowledges the role played by the great Argentinian choreographer and godfather of modern dance, Oscar Araiz, in the creation of both the company and its first work "Maria, Maria", made to the sounds of Brazil's biggest popular music star of that era, Milton Nascimento, also a Mineiro. So the company got off to a very good start, spurred on by some of the best music and dance talent in the region at that time.

This first work, created in 1976, was so successful that it toured all over Latin America and Europe across three years of performances (including the company's very first visit to London), thus winning the invaluable support of major funders, in particular Shell Oil company. This financial backing gave the company the stability needed to create a base of continuity and excellence, including the construction of a purpose built home in the Mangabeiras neighbourhood of Belo Horizonte. Corpo still occupies this base which includes studios, offices and a lighting theatre for performances and technical rehearsals. With the improving of Brazil's fortunes over the years, the name of Shell has been supplanted by other funders, in particular Petrobras (Brazil's major petroleum company), ensuring the longevity of this great ambassador of Brazilian culture.

The company has its own school, the Corpo Escola de Danca, also founded in 1975, which offers training in contemporary and classical dance. The teaching methods there have grown out of those almost forty years of investigation into and development of a truly Brazilian ethos and style. They host courses and master classes with visiting teachers, and undertake exemplary out-reach work through a programme called "Corpo Cidadao" (Corpo citizen), an NGO bringing dance and multi arts activities to kids from the poorer communities of Belo Horizonte. They have an interesting "credo" regarding their work, it goes, " is an artistic expression that cannot be divorced from other [cultural] contexts...there is a constant investment in activities that can expand the cultural universe of the students...", contributing to this ideal are teaching of dance history in its social, cultural and political contexts; platforms to show work created by students; and a dance festival called Danca no Setembro (dance in September) with performances by visiting artists, workshops and screenings. There's also an experimental company of young, professionally trained dancers called Sala B, brought together to foster diversity of styles and ideas in the creation process. This complete range of educational activities surely contributes to the stylistic integrity of the main Grupo Corpo's out-put, as well as giving something back to the city where they work in a sort of ever increasing, virtuous circle.

I first became aware of Corpo's work in 1989, when I had the fortune to be shown around the then fairly new company base in Belo Horizonte by the now director of their school, Fernando de Castro, who in 1989 was dance co-ordinator of the Winter Festival of Minas Gerais where I was teaching. During the visit I saw, in that little lighting theatre, a general rehearsal of Rodrigo Pederneiras', Missa do Orfanato, just completed, which went on to become one of their signature works still in rep today. Since teaching commitments were taking me to just about every region of Brazil's vastness across a four month period, I was able to reflect back and realise that, of all the contemporary work I had seen at various festivals and performances, theirs was the most mature and choreographically developed for that time.

My path crossed again with Corpo's well over a decade later in the 2000's. This time they were at the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires's "jewel in the crown" opera house. I had been sent by The Buenos Aires Herald to interview Rodrigo Pederneiras at his hotel before the first night. By then I'd already had the company's early history from the horses mouth during a detailed interview I'd made with Argentine dance maker, Oscar Araiz, who'd filled me in about his work in 70's Brazil with "Maria Maria" and "O Ultimo Trem", both made for the new Grupo Corpo, so meeting Pederneiras seemed to bring together all the disparate pieces of knowledge I'd acquired about them over the years. I was struck by Rodrigo's openness as an interviewee, despite his tiredness on the eve of what would be their most important date outside Brazil during their Latin American tour. He spoke animatedly about his way of working with composers, in this instance Joao Bosco, Tom Ze and Jose Miguel Wisnik, and about his constant search and experimentation to find ways of moving that truly reflect Brazil's fusion of cultures and rhythms. They were set to perform the African flavoured Bengele (1998), that speaks of Brazil's history with slavery, and Parabelo (1997) inspired by imagery, music and dance from the country's Northeastern interior, two quintessentially Brazilian works.

To understand the singularity of Corpo's success, longevity and consistency, you have to look at the company in the context of Brazil over the last forty years - in other words from the very worst days of the oppressive military dictatorship which held the country in its grip from 1964 to 1985 (leading many artists to go into exile) - then the miraculous surviving of all the vertiginous, post-military ups and downs of economic instability and hyper-inflation (at about twenty percent per month during 1989!), until the miracle of Brazil's coming of age under Luiz Inacio da Silva (known as Lula) and the cultural and economic flowering that began after he became president in 2003. He served the permitted two terms until he was replaced by the first woman president, Dilma Rousseff, in 2011. She has just been re-elected for a second four year term. The two governments have been committed to the gargantuan task of lifting the country's poor into the light of very relative prosperity, with all that means culturally and educationally. Memories are short and we forget the utter abjectness of that poverty in the 1980's and 90's, dramatic improvements there have been but all booms are followed by a bust, Brazil is struggling again and Petrobras is mired in corruption scandal, it would be very sad if these problems were to spoil the funding of dance companies like Corpo.

However, this Mineiro company was not completely alone in its miracle of survival through the darkest days, although I do believe it was alone in its consistently high production standards and in the gradual, purposeful way it forged its idio-synchratic, Brazilian style. Other players in contemporary dance working at that time are Ballet Stagium in Sao Paolo from 1971, well known in Brazil though less outside, they fuse contemporary and classical styles in works with Brazilian themes and still exist. There is Cisne Negro, also of Sao Paolo, still working and touring Latin America, unlike Corpo, Cisne chooses to invite choreographers in, often from Europe, and looks more European in style. Even back in the 1980's, they commissioned a work from UK's Janet Smith to Sir Arthur Bliss' music. In Rio de Janeiro there was the important experimental work of Angel and of Klauss Vianna. Klauss was originally a pupil of Maria Olenewa and a native of Minas Gerais, so his first school and company were in Belo Horizonte but in 1962 he started the classical ballet school at the dance department of the Federal University of Bahia in Salvador. With the evolving of his method, sometimes called "Expressao Corporal" or "Tecnica Klauss Vianna", came a move to Rio de Janeiro, where he and wife Angel founded their Grupo do Teatro Movimento and their school for movement research in 1975. Also in Rio, Graciela Figueroa, who had worked with the Viannas, founded her Grupo Coringa in 1977. The two groups bravely pushed boundaries as part of the counter culture movement in 70's Rio, in dictatorship days. Grupo Teatro Movimento fizzled out end of the '70's but Coringa continued until the late 1980's and Angel Vianna opened an experimental dance centre called Espaco Novo (new space) in 1983, which still exists and works in Rio de Janeiro today.

Of early municipal modern dance companies still working, there are Bale da Cidade de Sao Paolo, which switched from classical to contemporary dance in 1974, and Bale do Teatro Guaira in Curitiba (the capital of Parana state in Southern Brazil) founded in 1969, they have worked with some big names across the years, Maurice Bejart, John Butler and indeed Rodrigo Pederneiras, to name a few, and seem to straddle that bridge between neo-classical and contemporary work (companies in Latin America tend to be more fluid around style, so dancers become very flexible stylistically). Then in the Northeast, there is the 36 strong Bale do Teatro Castro Alves founded in 1981 in the city of Salvador da Bahia where African Brazil is most proudly manifest, especially at the Castro Alves Theatre where this contemporary dance company still thrives. Incidentally, Salvador is the location of one of Brazil's most important Dance Festivals, the Oficina Festival of Contemporary Dance, founded in 1977 by the inspiring Dulce Aquino (for many years head of the dance department at Bahia Federal University), the fest happens in August and has returned after a gap of 17 years.

In the booming Brazil of the 2000's, great new companies have sprung up, especially in the Southeast and the South where the money is - Rio and Belo Horizonte, Sao Paolo and Curitiba - speaking the edgy language of today's dance and needing platforms to be seen. In the 1990's a principal platform was Carlton Dance Festival which has since died, but now there is O Boticario na Danca. The country's dance fests are very important, a number have existed across the years and dancers and dance lovers are prepared to travel great distances to participate in these events which are fantastic forums for networking and keeping up to date with developments. For this reason the new Boticario na Danca, which began in 2013, looks very promising - equivalent perhaps to UK's Dance Umbrella but across the endless expanse of Brazil - the festival itself takes place in Rio, Sao Paolo, Curitiba and Recife (capital of Pernambuco state in the Northeast) with national and international companies performing and giving free workshops. The Boticario's funding programme is pan Brazilian and supports all aspects of dance: festivals, companies, exhibitions, tours, video, master classes etc. The only thing that worries me is that they employ a European, Germany based curator for the international aspect, as though not trusting the national eye in the selection process. The whole point is that Brazil sees things differently from Europe, its dance is aesthetically sure, vital and inventive and dancers are well schooled and beautiful technically (with that additional artistry for which they are sought the world over, what dance teacher Dudude Herrmann described as "...a transparency between body and spirit"), so the imposition of European criteria in selecting international work to be seen in Brazil is both unnecessary and slightly insulting. But anyway, the third Boticario is coming up in 2015 and should be interesting.

The most eminent of the newer dance companies must be Deborah Colker's (they visited the WMC in 2010), based in Rio de Janeiro. Colker is a mind boggling talent, an ex professional volleyball player and classical pianist who has also choreographed for Cirque du Soleil as well as creating ten full length dance works in as many years and who in 2009 won a Lawrence Olivier award for outstanding achievement in dance. Her work is daring, tough and full of originality but it is work that transcends nationality (hence the Olivier Award) becoming international rather than Brazilian. Her company is also heavily subsidised by Petrobras, the kind of permanent subsidy that Corpo had from Shell in its early days, which makes serious development of work possible at a high level of excellence. There's an interesting link between Colker and Corpo's Pederneiras brothers: before starting her own company, Colker danced for eight years with innovator Graciela Figueroa's Grupo Coringa. But before founding Coringa in 1977, Figueroa had worked with the investigative Grupo Transforma with whom the Pederneirases had also worked before starting Corpo in '75. Everything comes from somewhere in dance, so it's no accident that two of Brazil's most interesting and successful companies were seeded by the same 1970's movement: the older Corpo digging deeper into what it is to be Brazilian and Colker, of the next generation, going outwards to define her company style on the international scene.

I was able to talk to Rodrigo Pederneiras one more time when the company visited Buenos Aires in 2007. This time they had to perform at a different theatre because the Colon Opera House was already closed for its interminable years of restoration. I'd been invited to a reception for Corpo at the Brazilian Embassy on an exceptionally hot and humid night, so everyone spilled out into the garden and the fresher evening air. Pederneiras, again with great generosity and enthusiasm, granted me a friendly, informal and ultimately open interview as other Buenos Aires dance people gathered round us - with questions and answers ping-pong-ing in that combination of Portuguese and Spanish that Brazilians and Argentinians use to communicate -. He gives us some fascinating insights into the programme of that visit: two diametrically opposed, chalk and cheese works: "Breu" (2007), a study of modern, urban violence and aggression with music by Lenine, who fuses electronica with Brazilian rhythms, and the much more lyrical but very tongue-in-cheek "Lecuona" (2004), a wry celebration of romantic partner dancing to a rare, 1940's set of recordings of popular songs by much loved Cuban composer and pianist, Ernesto Lecuona. These songs had been the principal inspiration for the piece: he told us the extraordinary story of the lost collection of recordings he had heard about, some-how tracked down and then fought tooth and nail to obtain performing rights to. And he talked about his commissioned musicians, a key feature of Corpo style, Pederneiras almost always chooses living musicians who are emblematic of Brazil and with whom he has a good rapport, so that after the careful choosing of a collaborator and defining of the project, he is confident to give his composer the freedom to do their work, making his dance on the resulting score. He has had very fruitful associations with Tom Ze, the "enfant terrible" of the Tropicalista movement of the 70's (which also included Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil), and with Jose Miguel Wisnik, both have collaborated with him on more than one occasion.

The consistency of Corpo's work is also due to the integrated way the company functions. For many years their method has been one of dances produced by a total collaboration between costume design (Freusa Zechmeister), setting and lighting design (Paolo Pederneiras) and choreography (Rodrigo Pederneiras) and music - the changeable part - usually, but not always, a commissioned Brazilian artist. Another element that differentiates Corpo is their acknowledgement of the other Brazil: the Brazil of the African, of the Northeast and the rural, of the poor and the urban, and of the rich dance and music cultures emanating from that "other" Brazil; these things are reflected not only in the dance and the music, and the organically inter-linked visual content of set, costume and lighting design, but also in the bodies of the dancers - who they are and how they move - with technique and "centres" so strong that the movement can flow out freely, yet with complete control of shaping and dynamics and total dominion of rhythmic complexity. Training for daily class is classical ballet but this is not the vocabulary used by Pederneiras in his dance making, rather he uses a contemporary language of grounded sensuality and sequential fluidity, sometimes drawing on the rhythms and dances of popular Brazil, fusions that can have different pulses playing through the body simultaneously. The work is abstract and exquisite, but also disciplined and strictly related to the music, a dance language that can lend itself easily to any Brazilian theme.

At their performances in Cardiff this October 2014, Corpo performed their piece "Sem Mim" (without me - 2011), a lyrical, sinuous dance inspired by Martin Codax' thirteenth century song cycle about the Gallician sea of Vigo, and the women waiting on the shore for the return of loved ones. Body stockings with swirling designs resemble tattooed flesh and a huge fishing net or sail-like like gauze moves and lowers over the stage with the dance. This more recent work rubs shoulders with "Parabelo" (in which Tom Ze and Jose Miguel Wisnik collaborate on the score), described by Rodrigo Pederneiras as his most Brazilian work, it is powerfully evocative of that "other" Brazil. Tom Ze's "Cego com Cego" (blind with blind), a surreal and apocalyptic song of the Brazilian "sertao", the parched and unforgiving interior of Northeast Brazil where rural communities may live in struggle or die in desperate poverty, is the centre around which the dance is formed, first sung with haunting simplicity by a female voice, the song then multi tracks to a strident chorus, before transmuting to a kind of "repente"-rap version of the lyrics in deep masculine voice in "Xique-xique", resembling the catchy, loose footed rhythm of the Xaxado, the dance of the Cangaceiro bandits of Northeast Brazil of a century ago, still very much "lore" in that part of the world. Tom Ze's musical and Rodrigo Pederneiras' dance allusions to all this are tangental, subtle and elaborated, but the atmosphere and flavour are un-mistakable.

By Jenny March


From a professional dance back-ground, Jenny March is a dance writer and critic specialising in Wales and Latin America. Throughout the noughties she was the only specialist dance critic and reviewer with The Buenos Aires Herald. Between 2009 and 2011 she also had a regular dance column in Planet Magazine Wales. She continues to contribute on occasion to The Buenos Aires Herald and to other periodicals in Argentina and Europe as well as contributing to Theatre in Wales.
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