Imagine being a budding ballerina, with visions of swans and princes dancing in your head. But instead of skimming across a moonlit stage on pointe shoes you’re expected to clamber across a wall like a human lizard, or spin on a giant wheel like some glorified hamster.
The latter skills were a big part of what Luiza Continentino, Zuza to those who know her, learned during nearly ten challenging, enriching years as a key member of Companhia de Danca Deborah Colker.
Luiza was born nearly thirty years ago in Belo Horizonte, the same Brazilian city where Grupo Luiza ContinentinoCorpo has its headquarters (presented in the UK by The Dance Consortium in 2005). There she began training in classical dance, but also jazz and tap. When Luiza was eleven her family moved to Rio de Janeiro, where she began to take ballet seriously. ‘I loved Giselle, Romeo and Juliet and just this kind of dance,’ she says. ‘I wanted to be a princess.’
Finishing school in her late teens, Luiza had to decide what to do with her life. Becoming a member of Rio’s official ballet troupe, based at the Teatro Municipale, was not an option. ‘I’d had some experiences there as an invited guest,’ she confides with a damning shake of the head. Instead she spent a year and half away from dance to study law. The choice made sense since that profession, as well as music, run in the Continentino family.
So no dance for Luiza, just trips to the gym to stay in shape. But one year after leaving it behind she was still missing her first love. ‘I wanted to come back to dance. I decided to learn different kinds of things.’ She began to watch and study contemporary dance. As Luiza puts it, ‘I opened my mind.’
This was the mid-1990s. At about the same time Deborah Colker’s Velux, a galvanizing spectacle that climaxed with the dancers climbing over a studded wall, exploded on the Brazilian dance scene. This was Colker’s breakthrough show. It sold out, with an extra week of performances added due to public demand. ‘Everyone was talking about it,’ Luiza recalls, ‘and her.’
‘I knew Deborah,’ she continues, ‘but not closely.’ Luiza was actually related by birth to the Colker family and, just as importantly, her grandmother was Colker’s long-time piano teacher. ‘My mother said, “Okay, you have to go with Deborah because she’s really focused. When she wants something she’ll manage, because she’s really strong.” But I didn’t want to climb or dance on a wall. I didn’t think I had this capacity. I was like a princess in pointe shoes.’
Despite her hesitations Luiza met Colker, who agreed to take her on board. The young dancer recalls the budding choreographer’s words: ‘You’re not ready to dance everything, but I want to be for you like your grandmother was for me.’
‘The company I entered was completely different than it is now,’ Luiza now says. She was
essentially the first of Colker’s dancers who had a strong grounding in classical technique, allowing the choreographer a greater possibility to create new movement material. Still, Luiza had to make a lot of adjustments. It took time to gain confidence. Colker and the company’s rehearsal director kept pushing her. In return, she says, ‘I started to try to do. I can’t stay away from learning. In everything I do in my life I’m really intense and deep. I like to know everything about what I’m doing, and whatever I do I always do with my soul.’
Luiza learned to negotiate the wall. ‘I trusted my hands. I never released them and I knew I was safe. For me it was easier than the wheel.’ The wheel is the climax of Colker’s hit dance Rota, which the Consortium toured in 2004. ‘The wheel has a life of its own,’ Luiza explains. ‘It’s always moving. I was always scared. But it’s important to be scared, because when you’re scared you have respect for something.’
The first half of Rota is set to some of Mozart’s liveliest music. Here Colker created several passages of dance expressly for Luiza, with her body in mind. ‘The outline of an idea that Deborah had when I entered the company changed because of me,’ she says, smiling at the memory. ‘It was my first present from her.’
Luiza’s last official dance with Colker was Knot, a production that audiences across the UK can see this spring. Split into two acts, this highly physicalised show touches upon the give-and-take aspects of desire, sensuality, sexuality. ‘Knot talks about something secret and deep,’ Luiza remarks. ‘It’s all so emotional!’
Knot involved research into sadomasochism. In Hamburg the entire company attended a private workshop about bondage featuring a man, two women and some rope. This is Luiza’s take on the experience: ‘It’s a relationship. One person depends on another. With one girl I could see the pleasure in her eyes. That, and her trust, were unbelievable. Another girl liked to talk with the guy. So I think the picture can change. Yet in some way they both agree with this relationship.’
For Luiza the workshop was profound. ‘It broke my preconceptions. It was really beautiful, really impressive.’ Naturally she and Colker talked extensively about it. ‘I told her how much I liked the experience, seeing the pleasure and surrender. It really touched me. It’s what I’m looking for in my life. When I see this kind of relationship, with the soul and everything, I know I have something from this world inside me.’ Colker’s response was deeply appreciative. ‘You are my sadomasochism,’ she told Luiza. ‘This is perfect if you understand this.’ As Colker’s muse, and the embodiment of the show’s spirit, Luiza was gifted with the opening segment of Knot in which she is trustingly trussed up with ropes by another dancer.
While Luiza concedes that her relationship with Colker was and still is, in many ways, closer than that of the choreographer and her other dancers, they were yet able to maintain a professional footing. ‘I never had a different behaviour with her, nor her with me. She has always been strong with me: “You can! You can!” She has a responsibility towards me like my grandmother had for her. Everybody [in the company] knows this. I always talk with her about what I think and feel about her work, and she knows all about my life.’
It’s no surprise, then, that quitting Colker’s troupe after nearly a decade was not easy. ‘Sometimes Luiza Continentino I feel really tied to Deborah. I know she trusted and still trusts me. She told me not to stop dancing, or to not leave the company. But we know we will keep working together all our lives.’ As a farewell Luiza was given a big bouquet of sunflowers and a small but precious business card that everyone had signed. She carries the latter in her wallet. ‘Everybody cried. For me this was a perfect moment.’
Luiza is currently living in London with her husband Gustavo. Retrospectively she realises that she surrendered ‘body and soul’ to Colker’s dance. ‘I started with Deborah, saw what I had to do and I planted myself there. I love her and my place in the company, but at the same time I needed different things.’ What did she need? ‘I ask this question every day. The person who entered the company and the person who left it are completely different. I learned a lot about life. I worked in a big structure. One year we had a hundred performances. I danced and traveled a lot, got married and separated and married again. I’d lost my connection with my first partner. It’s a hard life. Dancers always have a duty. We always have to behave like we’re perfect. You have to be professional. But some days I didn’t want to be beautiful.’
Colker’s work, Luiza admits, is not easy on the dancers. ‘She’s really hard. Everybody knows it, and I believe it’s so. For her it’s difficult, too, to conquer the stage, the public. In some places it’s like the work is not yours any more because you have such a big responsibility with producers. But I saw Deborah working and growing with real discipline and focus.’
Luiza’s loyalty to Colker is coupled with an invaluable insider’s knowledge of how the choreographer and her company work. She feels that it is somehow inaccurate and incomplete to adopt a strictly intellectual approach to the Colker aesthetic. ‘Sometimes people who come from dance have lots of criticisms about Deborah. I feel sad and angry when they talk about her work not being deep, because I know it is. She’s always doing research. The creation process is really deep. Some people say she doesn’t have to always use scenery to make the dance, but this is what she likes. It’s something to change the space. She doesn’t think of movement for movement’s sake. She thinks about ideas, about using maybe just one movement to say something. We were also always thinking, reading, looking for our target. We worked hard.
‘With Deborah I had space to do whatever I wanted,’ Luiza continues, ‘and connect to myself. In last years I really tried to find that. “Today I’m sad, so I want to dance with my sadness or try to put it onstage with me.” Onstage it’s my moment. It’s why I work hard. But I have to say that I prefer the creative process and working in the studio to being in a performance.’
So is there life after Colker? Luiza says yes, definitely. ‘I left the company having made my dreams come true. I thought I didn’t want to be a dancer any more. But I’m a person who wants to develop my personality and express my feelings through movement. I do want to dance, but in small things and without pressure.’ Has she ever thought of taking up choreography herself? ‘Yes, but I’d be worried that I don’t have the capacity to say something new. Why have one more dance from someone without saying something new?