Grupo Corpo: Sem Mim, Onqotô
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Eisenhower Theater, Washington, DC; March 6, 2015
I knew very little about Grupo Corpo (in English “Body Group”) before attending the Brazilian dance company’s performance as part of the Kennedy Center’s month-long “Iberian Suite: Global Arts Remix” festival, which highlights the arts of Portuguese and Spanish-speaking cultures and their worldwide impact. I saw the Brazilian dance ensemble Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker at the Kennedy Center in 2010, and I really enjoyed their amazing athletic performance. For some reason, I thought it was unlikely another contemporary dance company from Brazil would thrill me as much. I was wrong. Grupo Corpo utterly wowed me.
It’s rare that I don’t have something unfavorable to say about a performance, even if I don’t end up including any negative points in my review. I keep plenty of mental notes about things I don’t like – I’m a critic, after all! I make lots of nitpicky observations, and I almost always see things that I think could be done better. The Mark Morris Dance Group performance I saw a week ago was one of the unusual instances when I had only glowing things to say. To my surprise, I felt the same about the Grupo Corpo performance just one week later.
Surely some of Grupo Corpo’s success can be attributed to the fact that running the company is a family affair. Founder and artistic director Paulo Pederneiras and choreographer Rodrigo Pederneiras are brothers, while sister Miriam is a choreographic assistant, and two more brothers, Pedro and Gabriel, serve as the company’s technical director and technical coordinator, respectively. The siblings have built a solid performance machine that they’ve kept going full steam ahead since 1975.
Grupo Corpo combines classical techniques with popular Brazilian forms. They were the resident dance company of the Maison de la Danse in Lyon, France from 1996-1999, and although they had not made it on my radar screen until now, they’ve achieved well-deserved acclaim around the world. Clearly, they’re doing something right. Or, as may be the case based on this performance, they’re doing everything right.
The level of excellence at which every element reached in both “Sem Mim” (“Without Me”), a 2011 work, and “Onqotô” (“Where Am I?”) from 2005, was nothing short of phenomenal. The costumes (by Freusa Zechmeister), the lighting and set design (by Paulo Pederneiras), the music, the choreography, and the dancers themselves – everything oozed perfection. I would have changed nothing.
In “Sem Mim”, a vast gauzy, sparkly curtain billowed overhead, acting like a pin-tucked sky or creating mountains from within which dancers romanced each other. The dancers wore unitards that mimicked full body tattoos, with the men showing more black and the women more red. Skirts for both the men and women emerged toward the end of the work. The program notes indicate that the work was inspired by sheet music from a Galician-Portuguese medieval profane songbook: the “sea of Vigo song cycle” by Martin Codax. Carlos Nunez and Jose Miguel Wisnik provided the original score based on these songs addressing the longing of women separated from their beloved by an ocean that takes and returns them. In the music, I heard Celtic strains (shrill wind instrument, bagpipe-type sounds, drum beats). In some of the dancing, too, I sensed Irish connections. There were moments of high kicks, fast footwork, still upper bodies, and stick-straight spines.
In the beginning, two groups – one group composed of mostly females, the other largely male – head slowly toward each other from opposite directions. Their undulating bodies form waves. Hips pulse and sway throughout. Tossing, swinging, spinning, thrusting, the heart of the dance captured me. I felt completely enveloped by it. So immersed was I in the rhythms and spirit “Sem Mim” conveyed. I experienced soaring joy and bittersweet longing, the same universal emotions sung about in the 13th century. The dancing by the ensemble of nine men and eight women was demanding and dynamic, as well as undeniably beautiful. The choreography grew to a climax and came to a satisfying end while remaining unpredictable. Who could ask for more?
There was more, however, and although I doubted I could love the company’s final piece “Onqotô” as much as “Sem Mim,” I did. “Onqotô” came into being from discussions about the origins of the universe and the importance of soccer in Brazil. The set is composed of thick dark rubber strips hanging in a wide semicircle from the ceiling to the floor. These form the back of the stage and also an entry and exit point for the dancers. The lighting was eerie and dark at first. Amazingly, through miraculous lighting design, one could see the dancing clearly, but not the faces of the dancers. It was as if their individuality had been taken away and their visages obscured.
In the beginning, in all black, and again recalling traditional Irish dance, the dancers strike their heels against the floor. The noise generated feeling, in addition to suspense. With a whoosh and some ripples, the group jumps through the strips and disappear. A number of different groupings follow, including intriguing duets and quartets. Two men slide across the floor on their backs, taking turns rising from the stage and lying flat. In another section, dancers continue their close interaction with the floor. In pairs, a female couple, and a male/female couple pop up from the ground like frying bacon. In brighter lighting, one could see their divine musculature and facial expressions. The dancers sit astride each other. Intimately, one woman in a same sex pair sinks her nose into her partner’s neck and travels down her to her breastbone. The entanglements are extremely passionate.
Later, accompanied by a dramatic change of tone, dancers in knee pads energetically bounce to rap music. Their limbs move as if on hinges. Knees bend and extend, not unlike soccer kicks. In another section, again with a different tone, a male dancer inches forward toward the audience, all the while his body crouches and bows, the top of his head stuck to the floor, his eyes facing away from the seated patrons. The masterful lighting design made it such that one saw a ghostly form. You could not see the dancer’s entire body. Instead, with primarily head and fists visible, a creature almost like a crab appeared to be crawling gradually ahead. Finally, up the dancer stood, absolutely naked, with all of his anatomy in full view.
I recommend Grupo Corpo without reservation. I guarantee when they are in the United States again, I will want to see them.