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Precisely sultry: Grupo Corpo.

Brazilian Fusion
By Mae G. Banner

Grupo Corpo
Jacob’s 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 spats.

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.


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