Grupo Corpo boldly bares the rhythms of its Brazilian roots

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When you are a dancer growing up in Belo Horizonte, a city by the mountains in Brazil’s southeast, there can really be only one company you dream of performing with. Grupo Corpo, the country’s biggest contemporary-dance troupe and one of its best-known cultural exports, is based there, far away from the beaches and glitz of larger metropolises like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

“Since I was born here in Belo Horizonte, I have this respect for Grupo Corpo,” dancer Rafael Bittar explains to the Straight from a tour stop in California, near Stanford University. “Yes, it is isolated; the notion is the centre of the culture is São Paulo and Rio, but Grupo Corpo has taken a very important place in the culture of the country.”

In that regard, Grupo Corpo has achieved its biggest goal. When brothers Paulo and Rodrigo Pederneiras founded the troupe in 1975, it was in reaction to the old colonial art forms, especially ballet, then dominating the cultural landscape. The pair sought to build a new kind of dance identity, integrating Brazilian art and folk forms into ballet technique, and they found the freedom in Belo Horizonte to flourish. Anyone who saw Grupo Corpo’s debut here when DanceHouse brought it to the Playhouse in 2010 knows the result has been a physically explosive, propulsive feijoada of influences.

“It’s a very different type of movement from the European contemporary dance,” says Bittar, who joined the company in 2012. “They always invite Brazilian musicians to do the soundtrack; it’s the way they work. They are very proud to be in Brazil and to have this culture and to create these pieces.”

Brazilian jazz provides the whirling, driving force for one of the pieces the troupe presents here in a double bill. Imã (“Magnet”) is set to the rhythms of the band + 2, playing with the idea of dancers constantly being drawn and stuck together, then wildly exploding apart.

The other piece, Sem Mim (“Without Me”), takes viewers on a much darker, much more melancholy journey. Inspired by a Portuguese song cycle by the medieval composer Martin Codax, the dance centres on a group of women lamenting the departure of their lovers on ships, and Bittar says the movement echoes the theme in the bodies’ ever-undulating waves. The mournful score also features the haunting sounds of a traditional Galician bagpipe. But it’s the look of the work, with its skintight costumes bedecked in tattoolike drawings, that makes Sem Mim one of Bittar’s favourite pieces. “It’s very beautiful, with these tattoos all over the body.”

Whether Bittar and the other dancers are performing sad or high-energy work, they’re always aware they’re cultural ambassadors for Brazil. In Vancouver, as happens elsewhere around the globe, Grupo Corpo will be greeted by a strong contingent of proud Brazilian ex-pats. “In some cities you can hear, in the audience, some people yelling, ‘I love Brazil!’ ” Bittar says with a laugh.

Still, no matter how distant he is from Belo Horizonte—be it in South Korea, Lebanon, or Canada—Bittar never feels too far away from the place where he once dreamed of joining his country’s most exciting dance troupe.

“Being in Grupo Corpo, it helps when you’re travelling around the world to feel at home,” he says, and then explains: “When you’re performing, if you have to do choreography that’s like a samba, you feel like you’re at home. I think the dancers are very proud to do this kind of movement. There’s no other company of dance that makes this kind of movement.” 

DanceHouse presents Grupo Corpo at the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday and Saturday (February 7 and 8).

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