Populated by descendants of African, Middle Eastern, European, Asian, and indigenous peoples, Brazil has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world. Grupo Corpo attempts to reflect this mix in dance. The group, whose name means Body Group, will bring two pieces to the Lensic on Tuesday, Feb. 4, that exemplify this fusion. “Dança Sinfônica,” which was choreographed for the company’s 40th anniversary in 2015, features a symphonic score and over 1,000 photo projections of every person who has danced or worked in other capacities for the company over the years. Many of them have since passed on. “It’s a very emotional piece,” said Rodrigo Pederneiras, chief company choreographer since 1978.
“Gira,” a 2017 piece whose title means “to turn,” is the second performance on the program, and it heads in a more Afro-Brazilian direction. All the dancers appear topless in white, flowing gowns, like those worn by the practitioners of Umbanda — a religious practice developed by spiritualists in the Brazilian city of Niterói in the early 20th century. Pederneiras said he was raised Catholic, but after spending several years researching the ritual practices of Umbanda, he became a believer. “The body — and dance — is part of the practice.” During a ritual, the celebrants are generally in a small, confined space, like somebody’s living room. They close their eyes, move to rhythmic music, and go into a trance state. “They turn and turn and never touch,” he said.
“It lasts for hours. Everyone drinks and smokes a lot. Of course, we can’t do that onstage.”
Grupo Corpo is based in Belo Horizonte, a mining town in the mountains about 250 miles from Rio de Janeiro. The company has always been a family affair. Pederneiras’ brother Paulo is the artistic director, in charge of the memorable sets and lighting. A sister, Miriam, once danced in the company and serves as rehearsal director. Brother Pedro, and his son, Gabriel, work as technical director and coordinator, respectively. A close friend, Freusa Zechmeister, has been designing the costumes for decades, and many of the dancers have been part of the company for more than 10 years — a long haul in a physically grueling profession.
“Some 50 years ago, my sister Miriam went to see a modern dance show,” Pederneiras said. “Then she and I started studying dance and decided, early on, that we wanted to make dance a career — in Belo Horizonte, of all places.”
The early works of the company were influenced by a tumultuous political situation in Brazil, which was ruled by a military dictatorship until 1985. At that point, a journey toward discovering a voice in dance that was uniquely Brazilian began. Music is always the starting point for Pederneiras, and pieces he has choreographed over the years have included works by well-known Brazilian musicians such as Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso, Marco Antônio Guimarães, and Ernesto Nazareth. There have also been Brazilian takes on music by European composers including Robert Schumann, Richard Strauss, and Heitor Villa-Lobos.
There are 22 dancers in the company (19 will be traveling to Santa Fe). They tour in major cities around the globe and have been touring for many, many years. At home, a typical day starts with a classical ballet class. Once the choreographic process begins, Pederneiras draws from folkloric forms like xaxado, samba, and capoeira. A glimpse on YouTube offers a smorgasbord of styles — a stage filled with life, color, and bouncing, quirky movement that moves from fast footwork to highly precise unisons. There are Merce Cunningham-like disjointed sections that take up a lot of space, plus perfectly rehearsed floor work, arm tosses, and hip thrusts. “When I first started creating dances like that, people saw it as absolutely new. Today, we don’t worry — we do what we do,” Pederneiras says. “It’s not hard to come up with new ideas. When composers arrive, they always bring new ideas. We prefer to be influenced.
“In Brazil, we are a very big soup,” he says. “We eat, we learn, we transform.” ◀