It’s never too late for a spiritual awakening. At 63, Rodrigo Pederneiras—cofounder of Grupo Corpo, one of Brazil’s and the world’s great dance troupes—decided to delve into the Afro-Brazilian religion of Umbanda to create a new work. The faith has thrived in poverty-stricken pockets of his home country, blending African traditions, brought to South America by slaves, with Roman Catholicism, Indigenous American beliefs, and spiritism. In some of its rituals, mediums channel spirits and move around the room in a trancelike state to music.
One of Pederneiras’s company members, an Umbanda follower, took the choreographer to a service in a part of Belo Horizonte, the landlocked city where Grupo Corpo has been based since 1975.
“I really didn’t know about it—I had a very strong Catholic education,” Pederneiras tells the Straight over the phone from a tour stop in Eureka, California. “I went every day to the place the rituals happen, and I really learned a lot with these people—they’re very, very poor people, but very big people. So I started to have the religious experience with them. It was fantastic and it has changed my life. I still go there.
“They receive the spirits in their bodies, and they remember nothing that happened,” he explains. “In this small space there were sometimes 40 people dancing with closed eyes, and they don’t touch each other while they’re turning around and around. And each entity has a very personal way to dance. Being in the middle of it, I was really fascinated.”
The experience illustrates how the choreographer, over decades, has pushed to immerse himself in Brazil’s wildly diverse cultural worlds. The work Gira, which grew out of the Umbanda experiences, is not a literal reenactment but a bold and polished contemporary expression of its ritualistic rhythms. To the Brazilian punk-fusion sounds of São Paulo band Méta Méta, bare-chested dancers build to an almost ecstatic state as they whirl and kick around the stage in white flowing skirts.
That deep devotion to Brazil’s distinct flavours has been part of Grupo Corpo’s success over the decades—making it part national treasure, part artistic ambassador. Pederneiras also seems to retain an insatiable curiosity, always trying to find some new inspiration in his home country’s endless rich wellspring of ideas.
But the choreographer also points out Grupo Corpo’s other secret to longevity: working like a close-knit family—often literally. The choreographer founded the company with his brother Paulo Pederneiras, and their sister Miriam as one of the dancers, first basing the troupe out of their parents’ home.
That atmosphere set a tone for a company where everyone feels part of the clan. “My assistant used to be a dancer for 20 years; one of the technicians—he’s German—used to be a dancer for many years,” he says.
His love for his members is evident in the story behind Dança Sinfônica, another work Grupo Corpo will bring here on a double bill. Created in 2015 to celebrate Grupo Corpo’s 40th anniversary, it pulls together dazzling excerpts from some of the company’s best repertoire, centred on a breathtaking pas de deux. The piece features a set with photos of hundreds of people who have worked for the troupe. But Pederneiras reveals a more personal reason for creating the piece. It is devoted to one particular dancer, whose young daughter died of cancer.
“It was a piece that was very emotional for me,” he says. “I used to make rehearsals and the little girl would sit on my lap. It was very difficult for all the company, and especially for the mother, who is still a dancer. I decided to create the tribute to this ballerina.”
With this kind of passion, the Grupo Corpo family continue to thrive in the unlikely metropolis where they have built an international force. “We decided to stay in Belo Horizonte because it was more of a quiet city,” Pederneiras reflects. “It was important to focus in our work and on what we really wanted to do, because in Rio or São Paulo it would be more difficult to do this. Maybe impossible.”
DanceHouse presents Grupo Corpo on Friday and Saturday (February 28 and 29) at the Vancouver Playhouse.