Art thrives on adversity. When Brazil’s Rodrigo Pederneiras cofounded the dance company Grupo Corpo in 1975, his homeland was under military rule. The suppression of free expression and the brutality of the army, which ran South America’s largest country from 1964 to 1985, provoked a crisis in the national identity of Brazilians, for whom music and dance had always been part of the fabric of everyday life and work.
“They were very tough years, very hard,” recalls Pederneiras, Grupo Corpo’s choreographer, on the line from a hotel in Montreal. “In the early ’70s my brother [Paulo, the ensemble’s artistic director] was doing theatre, but we decided to form a dance troupe because none existed in our home city of Belo Horizonte at that time.
“Our preoccupation was very great,” Pederneiras continues, speaking in at times halting French. “How to create a kind of dance that could be the true face of Brazil, the way of being of the Brazilian people? We worked hard and did long researches in popular dance from the south and the northeast of the country, and I think we’ve created a way of moving and dancing that’s special to Grupo Corpo. I feel that right now we’re like ambassadors for Brazilian culture when we’re touring outside the country.”
Though Grupo Corpo has been to Canada several times, the company makes its B.C. debut at the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday and Saturday (April 23 and 24), with a double presentation, Parabelo and Breu. Performed by 19 dancers, the pieces are radically different in spirit, though each evokes a Brazil that’s not found in tourist brochures.
“Parabelo was created in 1997,” Pederneiras says. “It draws inspiration from the art of the northeast, a very poor region where life is really hard, but the paintings people there do are full of colour, and the music is absolutely happy—the dances too. That, for me, is a great paradox. It’s almost the opposite of what their lives are like. The word parabelo means a weapon, a gun, because of the sol parabelo, the sun of the northeast that kills.”
Two major composers of music with a roots base and progressive edge, Tom Zé and José Miguel Wisnik, worked on the score. Their soundscape features driving nordestino rhythms such as forró and baií£o, as well as instruments traditionally heard at barroom dances in dusty towns of the outback—accordion, guitar, rabeca (rural fiddle), zabumba (bass drum), and triangle. Pederneiras’s choreography sensually blends folk, classical, and contemporary dance moves to create a new and uniquely Brazilian vocabulary.
For the score of 2007’s Breu, songwriter Lenine draws on a broad palette of acoustic and electric sounds, from indigenous rattles to contemporary rock guitar, as well as samples and effects. The title—meaning “pitch” or “tar” in Portuguese—according to Pederneiras signifies “no light”.
“Parabelo is a work with a lot of colour and it’s bright, whereas Breu is all black and is about violence,” he says. “I talked a lot to Lenine about the theme, and he made this music that’s heavy, heavy.”
Movements are more rapid and abrupt, though the style brings together cultural strands similar to those in Parabelo, with an urban twist. The dancers are dressed in black unitards with white patterns like body paint, suggesting Amazonian inspiration.
The close collaboration between Pederneiras and composers—including songwriter Caetano Veloso and U.S. minimalist Philip Glass—is one of Grupo Corpo’s hallmarks. “I’ve worked with José Miguel [Wisnik] three times and with Tom Zé twice. With Lenine, it was the first time, but I think we’ll work together several times more because it works really well, and we’ve become the best of friends. For me, it’s really important to have an original score. The resulting piece, in my experience, is always going to be stronger, and bigger.”