Precisely sultry: Grupo Corpo.
Mae G. Banner
Pillow Dance Festival, June 27
Lines of women in crisply knotted black turbans, white unitards
frosted with black bodices, and decorated with short, stiff,
transparent skirts like the Red Queen in Through the Looking
Glass, traverse the stage in a samba step.
They’re joined by men in fawn gray tailcoats and vests (but
no shirts), who weave in and out among the women in unending
horizontal lines. The women wear jazz shoes. The men wear
This is Grupo Corpo, a company of 21 suave dancers from Brazil,
who opened the summer season at Jacob’s Pillow with two group
dances that expressed the essence of Carnival, but with the
purity of classical ballet.
We’ve seen and appreciated fusion choreography from the likes
of Garth Fagan, who brings a Caribbean sensibility to modern
dance. Grupo Corpo is more than fusion. The dancers are marvelously
trained in ballet, so thoroughly ingrained in its demanding
conventions that they easily make fun of it, inserting little
animal jumps and out-thrust, curlicuing hands.
In Nazareth (1993), a black and white dance of great
aplomb and knowing satire, one woman did a brief, turning
solo, so overwrought and over-torqued that she seemed in danger
of losing her balance, but so pleased with herself that we
knew she’d spin right through it. Meanwhile, the ensemble
of women, always moving on their horizontal path as in a carnival
parade, did snaky pirouettes, their undulating hips saying
“how do you like that?” to those stiff skirts.
Like all the dances choreographed by co-founder Rodrigo Pederneiras,
Nazareth is structured as a sequence of passages—again,
it’s like watching a parade, one Escola de Samba after another.
The movement changes with each variation in the music by Jose
Miguel Wisnik, based on works of Ernesto Nazareth. The peach-colored
light by artistic director Paulo Pederneiras also modulates
in concert with each variation.
Subtle costume changes follow a similar pattern. In one sequence,
two women appeared in long black tulle ball skirts, transparent
and pulled back like open curtains, the better to mock the
airs of the colonial aristocracy and unveil the truth that—as
the program notes say—humanity has hips.
Slow, formal sections followed by the maxixe, a ragtime-like
Brazilian ballroom dance of the early 20th century, take turns
with samba shuffles or sequences of nutty partnering in which
the women kick their legs out behind each time the men lift
them. These are spiced by neat jump turns and deliberately
awkward rond de jambes.
It’s a party, a circus, and above all, an accomplished satire
of the elegant ways of ballet and even of the cauldron of
cultures that is Brazil itself, all done to a charming European-influenced
score of piano, strings, and flutes and before a backdrop
of three-dimensional black metal roses designed by Fernando
Velloso. The effect is lush, but restrained.
Where Nazareth is black and white, the concluding dance,
21 (1992) is in bold rainforest colors of yellow, green,
magenta and red. Velloso’s backdrop, a huge patchwork quilt
of flowers and angular shapes, is echoed in the colors of
Freusa Zechmeister’s metallic leotards. The music, in contrast
to Nazareth’s ballroom elegance, is an earthy score
by Marco Antonio Guimaraes, performed on tape by UAKTI, a
Brazilian group that plays found objects, including lengths
of PVC plastic tubing.
Grupo Corpo, founded in 1975 by the Pederneiras brothers,
goes far beyond most dance companies I’ve seen in its total
melding of production elements and choreography. Music, costumes,
lighting and sets are not add-ons, but equal components of
the dance’s total impact. Think of the samba schools in Rio,
groups who work all year on their presentations for the next
carnival. Everything must cohere.
Set to yawps, honks, and bird whistles, 21 is a lively,
pelvic-driven dance with broad references to early German
modern dance. The repetitive movement, like the music, had
the minimalism of Philip Glass. As the dance continued, the
movement expanded from rhythmic parading to sudden barrel
turns, jumps and swinging arms. Men lifted and swung their
partners, who hung on their waists like limp rag dolls.
In the final wow, a woman jumped into her partner’s arms,
and folded her body over his shoulder as he carried her off.
This was Grupo Corpo’s fourth appearance at the Pillow, where
they’ve become an audience favorite. With every performance,
the ensemble seems smoother, more precise, and more sure of
their mission, which is to dispel all those tropical stereotypes
(you know, sizzling, sultry, and other s-words) and bring
out the full-bodied complexity of Brazil.