Focus on: Deborah Colker, by Donald Hutera

Wise Child
If the dance world held elections for Most Vivid Personality, it seems a safe bet thaBrazilian choreographer Deborah Colker would probably garner a healthy percentage of votes. A small, blazingly confident blonde of Russian-Jewish extraction, Colker has a grin as ravenous as her appetite for culture. She is a human tidal wave of enthusiasm and curiosity about life and dance, and the myriad intersections possible between the two. ‘I am like an old woman,’ Colker declares, ‘but also a little girl. I want to play with serious matters.’

These matters include physics and fashion, domesticity and aesthetics, sports and space, energy, breath and that’s just for starters.

But the point of Colker’s dances, and the key to their enormous popularity in her native country, is accessibility, not high concepts. They’re loaded with visual imagination and kinetic daring, yet at the same time thoroughly grounded in a recognisable reality.

On Success
Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker was formed a decade ago. To date there are only six Casafull-length dances in the repertory. Yet already Colker has achieved what must be one of the more gratifyingly high degrees of success in dance globally.

In Brazil, individual works of hers have attracted audience figures of 200,000 drawn from all ages and all walks of life. How many other choreographers can boast of a continuous nine-week run, as Colker’s dance Casa received in her home town of Rio de Janeiro? (In Britain only Matthew Bourne has achieved something comparable, with performances of his Nutcracker! and Swan Lake scheduled in two separate eight-week blocks at Sadler’s Wells from December to September 2003.)

Regardless of where the company performs, after each show Colker watches a videotape of that night’s work. No wonder she considers herself an insomniac, and a perfectionist. She seems to attack her livelihood and life with the spirit of a precocious, quick-witted child. ‘The men of my company say I am more man than them,’ she admits with a raucous laugh. Yet Colker is clearly proud. ‘I am very persevering, very ambitious. But not for money. I want my work to be seen.’

Colker is a fighter, too. She remembers negotiating her first long-term contract with a presenter in Rio. ‘We all know,’ she says, adopting a mocking, orotund tone, ‘that dance is important. But I convinced the sponsors that dance is also good business.’ The director of the theatre in which her company would perform suggested a two-week run. ‘I said, ‘No! I want to stay four weeks minimum, because I did eight months rehearsals, and this is my city, and I WANT THIS!” Colker bangs her fist on a table, then cracks a broad smile. ‘And I won. We had the public.’ She considers this victory more significant than espousing slogans through her work. ‘Having a company at all is a political action. After this, the theatres in Rio began to give more dates for dance. This is good for dance in all of Brazil. But,’ she adds sagely, ‘it’s important not to sit on success.’

A Brazilian in Rio
Deborah Colker is a true ‘Carioca’, as citizens of Rio de Janeiro are called. Careening past the city’s glittering Copacabana Beach in her battle-fatigued Volkswagen, she casts a hand towards the motely gallery of hookers, footballers and tourists spread along the avenue after midnight. ‘You can see all of life here,’ she remarks with undisguised satisfaction. ‘It’s not good. It’s not bad. It’s incredible!’

It is exactly this kind of expansive observastion and zest for living that Colker injects into her dances. Much like the choreographer herself, they are the products of the pleasure culture from which they spring. Call them pieces of sophisticated populist fusion or smart art with plenty of heart. However you label Colker’s dances, they are as authentically Brazilian as their creator.‘My work is like Brazil,’ Colker agrees, ‘with the mix of colours, the dynamics and rhythms, the happiness and ambitions,  and the possibility of a long way of discovery. It’s a little history we have. Five hundred years. People think there are still monkeys in the streets, alligators and Indians. Okay, it’s a Third World country. But it’s an honour to me that my influence is this beautiful, creative, strange place, with its music, and the misery living alongside the rich.’

The Background
Deborah Colker’s diversity of inspirations is reflected in her personal history. Her late deborah colker homepage father had been a violinst and conductor. She herself studied piano for twelve years. For six, she focused on psychology. For seven, she was an amateur volleyball player. Her professional dance training, begun at age 17, encompassed classical, jazz and tap. ‘Until 1984,’ she says, ‘I only wanted to dance what my teachers and choreographer gave to me. But then I began to think, and do something myself.’ A vast amount of film and theatre work followed, including devising movement for film director Werner Herzog’s stage version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Colker was also a teacher for both trained dancers and  non-professionals. Her description of that experience offers a clue to how she acquired the common touch as an artist. ‘I loved when my students were architects, dancers,  actors and from the medical profession. It’s very rich when you put all the people together from these different universes. It was important to get them to work with the stomach or breath, to think about health, to move with intelligence in their daily life. When you work with your body you can change your life.’

In 1993 Colker and a few students created a short dance that was part of a showcase of new talent in Rio. Buoyed by its positive reception, she took the plunge and launched her company’s subsequent appearance at Rio’s Teatro Municipal during the prestigious O Globo em Movimento festival, as the opening act of a double-bill with Momix, garnered international interest. The show Colker presented, A Vulcao, or Volcano, had been rehearsed in at least four locations. Two years later, thanks to generous (and continuing) support from the Brazilian state oil firm Petrobras, the company claimed permanent space in a former ironworks factory converted into a cultural centre. This is now permanent home to Colker’s administration and production staff, as well as a complete storage and rehearsal facility. Its location in the Lapa docks district of central Rio is almost within spitting distance of Petrobras’ international headquarters.

Designs on Dance
Colker’s choreography marries multi-disciplinary physical prowess with stimulating Mixdesign. Velox, from 1995, features a huge, colourful climbing wall studded with stepping treads from which the dancers swing, hang and spiral. (This section of Velox was incorporated into Mix, the performance which won Colker an Olivier Award.) Casa spotlights body architecture, the acrobatics of relationships and the accommodations people sharing a space must make in order to fit into each other’s lives. The cunning set was directly drawn from Colker’s own multi-level dwelling, while the movement material is derived from universally familiar activities like cooking and eating, sleeping, fighting, dressing and undressing, and having sex. 4 por 4In 4 por  4 [(which has its UK premiere at London’s Barbican Centre December 10-13, 2003) Colker’s company interacts with the work of Brazilian visual artists from various periods.

One is Gringo Cardia,who is the person responsible for all of her incredibly clever sets. In the section called Vasos, or Vases, the dancers move with daredevil deftness between 90 of his china vases.

But it is Rota which may be the Colker company’s best calling card. Created in 1997, the piece was enthusiastically received by London audiences and critics alike in 1999. It also marked Colker’s debut in the North American market, enjoying short but significant runs in Toronto and New York. It is with this dance that Colker’s troupe will be undertaking its first UK tour. Rota was triggered by a 1995 holiday in Disney World. ‘I couldn’t believe it,’ Colker recalls the visit. ‘The day I arrived I saw that all that I wanted to play with was there. Movement, humor, diversion, inversion, speed. All the different ages and colours of the people. The adrenaline. I became like my children (a daughter and son, both teen-agers), with problems sometimes because of the long lines to go on rides, and fighting, but also with a lot of pleasure.’

The Dance of Daily Life
Colker regards her dances as ‘motion in search of entertainment’ and ‘sensation with intelligence.’ Rota is a perfect example, light, unpredictable and packed with invention. ‘The dance starts from the floor,’ Colker says, ‘then comes to the air, where there is a different density and breath. It’s like astronauts: they live a completely different life, training for years to make only one trip to the moon. To win space, they have to understand gravity.’

In this benign yet exalting theatrical event, Colker displays her mastery at making a potentially labourious and heavy-handed art form fun again. ‘I want to honor classical music and the classical vocabulary of dance,’ she avows, ‘but join them with a contemporary language and make something relaxed. I know the past is very important. I respect that. But I don’t want it to be my prison.’

In all of her work, Colker operates on multiple spatial and conceptual levels without ever teetering over the edge into no-man’s-land abstractions. This is because, wisely, she keeps her dance, and herself, grounded in quotidian concerns. ‘When you do something on the wheel,’ she says of Rota’s central, second-act set piece, ‘it answers you. You have to understand Newton. But in my work I don’t want to only talk about the philosophy of balance, physics, geometry, volume and weight. I want to talk about the people on the street, in the pubs, on TV, my dogs,  my children. To be an artist is not to be removed. It is to be a mother, to eat, to drive a car, to go on the beach. If you are not a person, with a vision of the world in your head, you can’t be a choreographer.’

Dance: A Risky Business
Deborah Colker’s dancers are as well-versed in contemporary dance and ballet as they are in athletic movement. ‘I tell them all the time, ‘Please, don’t show me technique! Keep it inside.’ But with this discipline you can do anything. We have to train a lot. It doesn’t put you in a box. It makes you free.’ She works them hard, but carefully. ‘I love my dancers. When you are in love, you have great moments and bad. You have to be patient. Sometimes I think, ‘Today I can’t look at this dancer. She has to be alone.’ And then a week later I see that she needs me now. I go and talk, and we work.’

Risk, Colker admits, ‘is my passion. Sometimes someone in the company has a lot of fear. The first time one of the girls went on the big wheel we use in Rota, she cried a lot. ‘Don’t stop!’ I said, ‘You have to go!’ It was a great test for her. When she found she could do it, it was like she was born again with a force she didn’t know she had. It’s a constant trial, and a game. I need my dancers to come with me. I tell them, ‘You can’t pay attention only when you have the ball.”

‘She knows no limits.’ That’s how company member Carolina Wiehoff pegs her boss. Fellow dancer Fernanda Cavalcanti echoes her. ‘Usually in ballet it’s eight counts,’ she says, referring to the musical beats by which dancers keep track of their movements, ‘and then you start again. With Deborah it’s eight, then maybe nineteen. We joke that we’ll keep counting till we get to a million, then we’ll have a big party.’

A Place in Dance
Brazil is a huge country with a dance world marked by a great diversity of talent, and not a little divison. In this context Deborah Colker’s intentions have not always been understood, nor well received. ‘They accused me a lot,’ she says, ‘of not making dance. ‘It’s not cultured. It’s so easy. The wall [in her work Velox] is gymnastic, the wheel [in Rota] is not from reality.’ And for a long time the critics want to label me. ‘Deborah came from Trisha Brown. No. Pina Bausch? Twyla Tharp? No, she is from Paul Taylor. No! From the sports world then. No, because she uses dance. Okay, from show business.’

‘I am Deborah,’ she continues, ‘a very particular person. Of course I have influences all the time. From plants, my dogs…from you. I’m very attentive and informed, especially in the arts. My best friends are writers, directors of movies, painters, photographers.

I love when something good can enter me and stay. But it’s different when you study something a lot and have a reference. That is not my way. I never went to the United States or Europe to study dance. I didn’t see a lot of videos.’

Colker remains an ideal example of how intertwined person is with place. ‘My work is like Brazil,’ she says, ‘and Brazil is like me: never tired. At the same time, people here know how to sit and see the ocean and feel the wind. It’s a very intelligent moment to understand such a simple thing. It’s a genius, like Fred Astaire dancing, or Martha Graham and her clarity. Yes, it’s the same. I can’t say more.’

See also:
Tour(s): Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker – 2004, Companhia de Danca Deborah Colker – 2006, Deborah Colker 2010

Venue(s): Sadler’s Wells London