Sunday, February 24, 2013

Pure Liquid Sunshine: Grupo Corpo at Harbourfront Centre

Members of the Brazilian dance company Grupo Corpo, performing Imã (All photos by José Luiz Pederneiras)

Dance to blast away the February blahs. Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre is not marketing it as such. But there’s no question that the two hours recently spent in the presence of Brazil’s dynamic Grupo Corpo dance company, a feature of Harbourfront’s ongoing World Stage series at the Fleck Theatre, instantly lifted the spirits. The dancing by the 22-member ensemble is bouncy, bright, infectiously happy – pure liquid sunshine. The dancers themselves appear loose limbed, even rubbery, propelled by a love of dance which makes them a true delight to watch. The movement is mostly the message, and it’s physically daring and expressive, fantastically athletic and sensual all at once. Nothing appears capable of stopping the forward-motion drive. Whether pirouetting, leaping or doing a samba on the spot, the dancers are nothing but remarkable specimens of human achievement: the survival of the fizziest.

If there is a criticism, it’s that the choreography by Rodrigo Pederneiras, with the company since 1978, can appear monotonous: a case of, yes, there really can be too much of a good thing.

Grupo Corpo in Sem Min
Movement patterns rooted in balletic technique inflected with jazz thrusts and Afro-Latin rhythms, often repeat endlessly, like a tape loop, dazzle the eye with firebrand permutations but also overload the brain with a surfeit of energy. The need is for a few glasses of cold water in the form of a reflective moment or two, or perhaps just a simple shift in bodily direction, to temper the heat being generated on stage.

Still, it’s a dance experience not to miss, and largely because it’s so, well, dancey, void of heavy philosophising or deep soul-searching, which in many instances of contemporary dance tends to weigh the movement down making it appear almost secondary to a central idea.

With Grupo Corpo, a family-run enterprise founded by the troupe’s artistic director and lighting and set designer Paulo Pederneiras in Belo Horizonte in 1975, it’s the body that does all the talking. And the subject matter ranges from exploring how bodies move when attracted to each other to how they move when apart.

This, basically, sums up the two-hour program which unfolded in Toronto last week. Imã, the first piece presented, has as its title the Portuguese word for magnet, and the ensuing choreography generally explored various ways bodies can be attached and pulled apart through kinetically charged dance. The music in Imã, by Brazilian band +2, combined bossa nova, 1970s’ Afro and contemporary Japanese music, and was as hip and catchy as it sounds. Sem Min, which translates as "without me," followed the intermission and was more sombre, being an interpretation of Sea of Vigo, a medieval Galician-Portuguese song cycle in which women lament the departure of their lovers and also anticipate their return, a longing expressed as they bathe in the sea.

Even while radiating different moods, both works, and no doubt because made by the same choreographer, shared a dance language in which jack-knifing legs, quick-footed steps, undulating spines and shoulders accenting the beat of the accompanying score. What is communicated is not emotion but vitality, the surge and flow of strength as harnessed by a perfectly syncopated ensemble.

Grupo Corpo in Sem Min

Sem Min tended more than the first work on the program to arrest that flow to create moments of calm. As such, the 47-minute work held out the greater potential for drama. Through the dancing it was possible to discern a story. The choreography tended to repeat itself, frequently presenting the dancers performing a rapid moving fluid forward and back movement of feet, salsa-style. But there was discernible invention in storms of bodies whose wave-like torso motion approximated the water imagery encapsulated by the songs which Carlos Núňes, a well-known Celtic pan flutist, and Brazilian musician José Miguel Wisnik had recorded from the original Martin Codax song book. Paulo Pederneiras’ set design of large gold fishing net also added an element of surprise. It ascended at the beginning of the piece to create a canopy of sorts under which the performance took place. Then, at one dramatic moment, the net fell to capture two dancers in the role of finally reunited lovers whose sinewy yet high-voltage pas de deux was spied through a curtain of burnished desire. Freusa Zechmeister’s full-body tattoo costumes, worn by both the men and the women dancers, were suggestively tribal and went a long way in making the piece feel like a meditation on yearning where the quest to belong finally ends in unification. But besides fulfilling a quasi-narrative role, the costumes, as well as the set, were simply beautiful to look at. Some of skin-tight unitards were festooned with large scale roses while others had stylized graphic representations of Celtic knots. Towards the end of the piece, the dancers added flimsy knee-length skirts to their costumes coloured ones for the women, tartan for the men to signal the long-awaited coming together of the clan.

Grupo Corpo in Imã
In Imã, by contrast, the body collective was united from the get-go. The 40-minute piece, first created in 2009, began with shirtless male dancers on the floor in a crab-position, their female partners in t-shirts and jeans cradled in their laps and sharing every bump and jerk of the sideways scuttle across the floor. The women couldn’t help themselves. They were meant to appear as if stuck to their dancing companions, tightly linked by a magnetic attraction. In science, magnetic energy is said to be equivalent to electrical energy. Translated into dance terms, the theory creates visceral shock waves of excitement as the dancers pulled away from each other only to link up again an endless variety of combinations. This essentially was the point of a work whose basic premise played itself out in a complex ways. But what the piece was about was almost irrelevant when performed by the agile and gravity-defying dancers of Grupo Corpo. Even if the piece were examining how mould grows on bread, or some such other scientific phenomenon, it still would have been exciting to watch simply for the astonishing athleticism of the sharply honed ensemble.

The excitement level increased with each leap skywards, each seemingly effortless kick of the legs sideways to the top of a given dancer’s head. A veritable riot of flying limbs and rocking pelvises made the dancers seem super-charged super-humans inexhaustibly chasing an energy transfer. True, the relentless of the pursuit tended to wear down the spectator wanting, after more than 30 steady minutes of a full-on dance throttle, something by way of respite. But Paulo Pederneiras cleverly kept the eye from wandering by saturating the stage with a shifting kaleidoscope of vibrant colour – red, orange, green – which he also blended to dazzling effect. Zechmeister’s urban costume of jeans and t-shirts were also made to seem endlessly fascinating as a result of the dancers often bounding off into the wings wearing one coloured shirt and then re-bounding wearing another in a strikingly different hue. Again, it was a simple premise, but it worked. The spirit was lifted, soaring with the dancers.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, has just been published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out for more book updates

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