“When people think of Brazil – they think of football and carnaval…” Pedro Pederneiras laughs as he says this. He knows that by the end of tonight, hundreds of people will take away a whole other vision of his native land. Can dance do that? If it’s Grupo Corpo that’s on-stage then yes, it can. Because when they dance, it’s not just about steps, but about life: Brazilian life – and not the one you see in glossy tourist brochures.
Few holiday-makers have the north-east of the country highlighted on their map of go-to places. But in the mid-nineties, Rodrigo Pederneiras – Grupo Corpo’s resident in-house choreographer – went traveling round the region, his eyes and ears open to the cultural nuances that subtly separated one community from another. Even if the geographic distance was only a small matter of miles, there were fascinating differences between the neighbouring groups: a popular tune might sound the same – but the words people sang to it weren’t necessarily the same while the steps… Those could be something else altogether, as individual personalities rose to the demands of the dance, and customised the moves to suit themselves.
By the time he returned to Grupo Corpo’s home base in Belo Horizonte, Rodrigo had encountered a paradox that inspired him to make Parabelo (1997). The word ‘parabelo’ means a gun – in the north-east of Brazil, it’s the sol parabelo, the sun that kills as it beats down on the land and those who work on it. Poverty is a way of life there, but even if the rural communities had little in the way of disposable income or worldly goods, Rodrigo saw for himself how the people in this part of Brazil are distinctly rich in the colourful art-work they produce and in the exuberant music they play. This was the spirit, the energy that fed into every aspect of the production.
Parabello has now travelled the world, and elements of that indigenous, and largely unknown artwork – sourced from church interiors and used in Paulo Pederneiras’ set designs – have been seen by countless thousands. What they won’t have seen, however, is a set piece samba. Grupo Corpo don’t do cliches. When Rodrigo Pederneiras came back from listening and looking at those ongoing traditions in the north-eastern communities, he used the studio as a melting pot – stirred in some of those heritage influences to season the existing movement mix of classical ballet training and contemporary dance styles. He then invited the dancers to get under the skin of the rhythmic syncopations. Accentuate the little quirks of hip and shoulder that respond to the shifting commands of the beats while the other body parts are easing into sensual, sinuous sun-kissed stretches and undulations. It can look s-o-o-o relaxed and effortless. But this mesmerising display of rubber-limbed languour is underpinned by a rigorously-achieved precision. Indeed you could say that the Grupo Corpo house style is a fusion of such opposites, and that the evolving interplay reflects the rich cultural mosaic of Brazil itself. So many different peoples have come here from other countries, bringing their own, familiar rhythms with them as a kind of keepsake. And not just their rhythms, but the way they move their bodies. How they use their hips. Or keep one beat with their feet, and another with their shoulders…Over time, there are borrowings and amalgums and something new arrives that is intrinsically Brazil and nowhere else.
When Rodrigo Pederneiras is looking for dancers to join the company, he’ll watch to see if the wannabes can get into that groove feet first. Can they intuitively walk the walk? He reckons that with Brazilian people the rhythm always starts with the feet. When that happens, the rest of the body follows and the dance becomes like a wave, surging through limb and sinew. Thanks to Freusa Zechmeister’s unfailingly body-conscious costumes, you can see that dynamic flow as it courses through every shimmy, gyration and swoop!
However it’s not just in Parabelo that you can see how a place, a mood, or more often a piece of music triggers new work. Sem mim (2011) and, more recently, Triz only took their first steps once the music was in place. Not just any music either. For decades now, the Grupo Corpo mindset has favoured home-grown composers, some classical but many more of them cutting-edge contemporary. It’s that Brazil identity thing again. A way of breaking out of that ‘football-carnaval’ stereotype that the world applies unthinkingly to Brazilian culture. And because of how they introduce not just living composers, but writers and poets, philosophers and dramatists, into their work, Grupo Corpo have become global ambassadors for Brazil.
As for the family Pederneiras, they seem as in love with the idea of breaking new ground as they were almost forty years ago when they founded Grupo Grupo. A band of brothers – and sisters – who lived in a town where there was no big contemporary dance companies: they didn’t leave home in pursuit of that dream, they made their family home into a dance company. (This really happened. The Pederneiras parents moved out and allowed the kids to take over the house…) With such a personal investment at every level, you’d think they would have named the company Grupo Pederneiras. Even now the whole enterprise is powered by the combined energies of the original brothers, sisters, other relatives and friends, with each new generation adding to the work-force. Pedro cheerfully admits that most of the major decisions are taken round the kitchen table, Rodrigo will say, with a smile and a shrug “even when we’re not at work, we talk about work all the time!” while Paulo – the only brother who didn’t dance but is the company’s director and designer – will speak of how they all continue to collaborate so effectively because while they retain their artistic individuality, they are united as a family and have a shared ideal.
He could, in a way, be talking about Brazil itself. A country made up of so many individual cultures within a vast landmass. A body of many souls, with many many pulses and many energies – a body that dances under the name of Grupo Corpo.
Mary Brennan is the Dance/Performance Critic with The Herald.