Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

February 4, 2020
Cão Sem Plumas (Dog Without Feathers)

Jerry Hochman

Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker has acquired a highly favorable reputation and a loyal following since it was founded in 1994. Along the way, it’s received the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance (in 2001), and the Benois de la Danse in 2018 for its most recent dance, Cão Sem Plumas. The Brazilian company returned to the Joyce Theatre last week, bringing this award-winning dance with it. While my reaction to the piece is favorable, it’s not without significant reservations.

In general, the dance succeeds because Colker’s choreography is quite good, presenting a variety of movement in form and tempi throughout, and because her company dancers are quite extraordinary, delivering the passionate execution, the emotional commitment (although the dance has no narrative, there is characterization that regularly is applied to the movement, much as there may be emotional gloss that enhances an otherwise non-narrative ballet), and the boundless energy that the choreography requires. These dancers perhaps make the piece more memorable than it might otherwise be – which brings me to my initial reservation: I can’t identify any of them.

Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker
in “Cão Sem Plumas”
Photo by Cafi

Cão Sem Plumas is not only evening-length, which limits any sense of subject matter or visual variety (it appears that most, if not all, of the company’s dances, choreographed by Colker, its founder and Artistic Director, are evening-length), but it also camouflages the identities of its dancers via heavily applied “make-up” that makes the dancers appear coated in mud and dust. The costuming and make-up are appropriate for the piece, but the result is that one cannot see the dancers beyond the shape of their bodies and, at times, fleeting views of their faces. This is unfortunate – it would be nice to see who these dancers are, and to identify those who contributed so mightily to the piece’s success.

The second reservation is more concerning, and Colker herself alludes to it in her program notes. Roughly 3/4 of the way through the 70 or so minute piece, Cão Sem Plumas takes a turn that doesn’t appear to relate to the dance as it had evolved to that point to make what must be viewed as a political statement: essentially, the dance shifts uncomfortably from an explanation and elaboration on the qualities of a river in Northeastern Brazil and the people who live (or lived) within its boundaries to the plight of persons living in favelas (slums) without any clear indication within the dance that the two subject areas are related. The connection isn’t necessarily invalid; the dance just jumps to it too abruptly, requiring a leap of logic that maybe a native Brazilian can appreciate, but that’s much more difficult for someone unfamiliar with local history.

Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker
in “Cão Sem Plumas”
Photo by Cafi

Nominally at least, the dance is “about,” both literally and in the abstract, the Capibaribe River in Pernambuco, a state in Brazil’s northeast. For much of the year, the Capibaribe is a dried up and/or muddy riverbed until it comes to life (i.e., water flows), presumably after the area’s rainy season. A mystique of sorts apparently has arisen regarding this river and its cycle of existence, captured in poetry and literature, that give it human characteristics (or, seen a different way, that give humans characteristics of the river). One of these poems, and the direct inspiration for Colker’s creation of the dance, is “O Cão Sem Plumas” by Brazilian poet João Cabral. The poem is also the source of the dance’s title – a description of the river that translates as “dog without feathers.” Don’t ask – it’s not explained. Excerpts from Cabral’s poem, spoken in English, are inserted at various points during the dance but make little sense and add nothing.

Cão Sem Plumas consists of a film projected on an upstage scrim and the dance on stage that replicates and expands on the filmed images. Although the video is a dominating presence, it doesn’t overwhelm the stage action. On the contrary, to me the video enhances the stage action, and creates the “real” background from which the company’s dancers on stage emerge. Created by Colker and Claudio Assis, the video also fulfills the dance’s apparent purpose – or part of it: to show the destruction, but also the nobility, of a formerly thriving habitat.

A bit of background information, which neither the dance nor the poem excerpts provide – might be helpful at this point to help illustrate what’s lacking.

Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker
in “Cão Sem Plumas”
Photo by Cafi

The state of Pernambuco has a lengthy history, beginning (post-aboriginal) from the time of its colonization by Portugal in the early 16th Century, later by the Dutch, and then falling back under Portuguese control again. Its capital and largest city, Recife, was founded in 1537 and was the first slave port in the Americas. The floodplains of the Capibaribe, whose surrounding lands were rich with mangrove trees and its banks reportedly covered with sugar cane, were where the first sugar cane mills were established by the Portuguese. This sugar cane industry relied for labor first on the area’s indigenous peoples, and then on imported slaves – until the river’s bounty was spent. Recife remains a flourishing city, the fourth or fifth largest in Brazil (depending on the source), with a population over 4 million. Cursory research into Recife, not surprisingly, does not indicate the presence of favelas, but if you dig for it, you learn that the city contains multiple favela “neighborhoods” in the shadow of the high-rises that line Recife’s famous beaches. These favelas may be largely populated by descendants of slaves (Brazil abolished slavery in 1888) who immigrated to urban areas to find work and shelter. I’ve read no connection between the sugar cane harvesting on the Capibaribe (which empties into the Atlantic at Recife) and the favela population, but I don’t doubt that a connection can be found.

Given this history, a connection (metaphoric or actual) between the shriveled, now mostly barren Capibaribe (until it floods) and the poverty of enslaved peoples and their descendants is not difficult to imagine. But Cão Sem Plumas doesn’t tell that aspect of its story with any clarity. Rather, the dance is presented through much of its length as a sort of video travelogue with stage action that mirrors and enhances it. There are references to sugar cane harvesting, but little if anything connecting this to the favela references that dominate the concluding part of the dance.

Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker
in “Cão Sem Plumas”
Photo by Cafi

The film is presented to the audience first. Initially, it consists of images of the dry, cracked, and muddy riverbed and the mostly decrepit surrounding river banks. It looks dead. [Strangely, views of the river apparently thriving after the rain are shown as well, but these views may have been intended as a sort of flash-back to better times – or, to visualize the inhabitants’ movement to the city after the sugar cane industry died, but that’s more of a stretch.] Soon, an indigenous-looking man is seen within the riverbed (in the film), covered in, and covering himself in still more, mud, dirt, and dust, as if he was a either a creature of the riverbed or its embodiment. Or both. He is followed on film by more similarly dressed people who pour over the shriveled riverbed. Initially I thought that these people were members of a native tribe who lived on the riverbed or its surrounding area (Colker’s notes states that the company spent almost a month in the Perambuco, capturing images of the river, observing its folk dances, and seeing its people), but it soon becomes apparent that the persons in the video are company dancers made up and costumed to look aboriginal. And if it wasn’t then sufficiently clear, it became so when company dancers began to populate the stage, appearing in all respects like the persons seen in the video.

After the film’s introduction and the emergence of dancers on stage, Cão Sem Plumas becomes a vivid display of motion. Colker’s choreography is an amalgam of mostly contemporary dance and some balletic movement. But the nuts and bolts of the choreography don’t tell the half of it – it’s the frenzied action to the varied Brazilian music, and the dancers’ execution of it, that’s breathtaking. There is no adequate way to describe it. Suffice it to say that the choreographic variety reflects the variety of the Brazilian source music – some twenty pieces of music spanning the eight nominal segments into which the dance is divided. Colker’s choreography to the varied music, consisting of individual and small group, but primarily pulsing large group dances, is the dance’s heart.

Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker
in “Cão Sem Plumas”
Photo by Cafi

There are stylized moments to be sure – supposedly, dancers at times (according to Colker’s program note) represent crabs emerging from the river; at another, a dancer personifying a heron supposedly appears on the riverbed. I didn’t see these depictions for what Colker says they were. Rather, the crab-like movement, particularly in the initial third of the dance, to me represented the people’s connection with the river. That is, they arose out of it, pulling themselves up from the muck. And the heron – well, yes, there’s a tall bird-like figure who prances around on pointe, but the significance to me wasn’t so much the appearance of a bird as it was the river’s past attraction to a variety of forms of life.

At one point, the film references the sugar cane industry and the people toiling in it, which is echoed in the stage action – complete with nifty stylized sugar canes (which in reality range from 6 to 20 feet tall) that suddenly descend from the rafters like a mass of vertical blinds which the dancers /villagers must harvest.

Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker
in “Cão Sem Plumas”
Photo by Cafi

Thereafter, however, the dance thematically goes awry. According to Colker’s note, in addition to representing the river, the dancers also represent “the elite that take nourishment from the Capibaribe, but turn their backs on poverty.” I saw nothing whatsoever in the dance to indicate that. And although I saw the program note’s reference to stilts on the Capibaribe riverbank, there was nothing to show that they were supposed to be “an iconic image of Recife’s favelas” as the program notes indicate. Whatever they were supposed to represent, they were just stilts emerging from the riverbank, not any sort of dwelling. The stage action roughly concurrent with those filmed images attempts to show the river-villagers constructing what are supposed to be favelas, but which look like wooden crates mated with playground monkey bars. When we next see favela images, in the film, they’re of “real” favelas with “real” contemporary inhabitants, featuring people and locations that have nothing to do – at least via the piece itself – with whatever came before.

Although Cão Sem Plumas remains a very fine dance choreographically and as executed, it suffers by this confusing non-relationship relationship. And it would seemingly have been a relatively simple matter to establish the connection, but the dance doesn’t.

In summaries I’ve seen of Colker’s other dances for the company, it’s clear that physicality and athleticism are hallmarks of her choreography. This exceptional physical interplay is what makes the dance work. And it’s that quality, and the superb execution by the anonymous company dancers (14 members of the company are listed), that makes Cão Sem Plumas well worth seeing.