If you think about it, Brazilian modern dance company Grupo Corpo are an odd, improbable mixture. An essentially family enterprise based in the suburbs of an unremarkable city in the Brazilian interior, the company is nevertheless considered to be a national flagship. Classical ballet is the basis of their dance technique, but you could never call them a ballet company. And though their creations bear the distinctive stamp of a particular and idiosyncratic group of collaborators, many see them as an expression of Brazilian identity itself.
But watch them at work instead of thinking about it, and those contradictions dissolve: they look perfectly at home with their place, with their style, with their status. And perhaps that easy way with odd mixes is what makes them who they are – an example of what company choreographer Rodrigo Pederneiras calls o jeito nosso: “our way”.
In fact the company has travelled quite some distance to find its own way. It was founded back in 1975, following a frankly reckless impulse. Young Rodrigo Pederneiras had trained in ballet, in Belgium and Buenos Aires as well as in Brazil, and he and his brother Paulo simply decided to form a new dance company. They had no place to call their own except the family home, in the city of Belo Horizonte – so, with a faith that could easily have been folly, their parents not only moved out but redesigned their house to accommodate the new company (which, also included their daughter Miriam). It was a risky and thoroughly impetuous venture – but astonishingly, its very first piece struck gold.
Maria Maria caught the spirit of its times. Choreographed by Argentinean Oscar Araiz with music by popular Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento, it recounted the story and the struggles of a poor black woman. At a time when the country was still under a censorious dictatorship, this piece, which represented the most underrepresented figures in society and offered a counterpoint to sanctioned nationalist narratives, hit a popular nerve. It was a runaway success, and stayed in the repertory for six years.
Cannily, the family invested all the returns from Maria Maria into developing the company, and within three years they had a new home for the company and a school. Artistically too, new moves were afoot. In 1978, Rodrigo began his first choreographic experiments, and although the team of Araiz and Nascimento created Último Trem for the company in 1980 – another socially engaged popular hit – it was Rodrigo who went on to become the house choreographer, setting Corpo off in a very different direction.
His main inspiration came not from stories or social issues or national identity, but music – particularly classical music. Throughout the 1980s, he worked largely with existing compositions from the European canon – Brahms, Elgar, Schumann, Haydn and others – or from “erudite” (as the Brazilians say, meaning highbrow) Brazilian composers such as Heitor Villa-Lobos and Carlos Gomes. Building on a classical ballet style, he aimed for a visual response to the music – its shapes, its moods, its composition. The breakthrough piece in this early cycle of works was the neoclassical Prelúdios (1985), to Chopin – the first success that Rodrigo felt marked by his own distinctive signature.
It was, nevertheless, more a point of departure than a moment of arrival. His 1989 Missa do Orfanato, to Mozart, began to give incorporate “Brazilian” accents into the balletic style – breaking the classical lines, and giving rein to more lilt in the body. This work also brought together a group of collaborators who have remained the company’s core creative team ever since: Freusa Zechmeister as costume designer (who had first worked with the group in 1981), Fernando Velloso as scenographer, and brothers Rodrigo as choreographer and Paulo as lighting designer.
If Prelúdios pointed the way forward and Missa do Orfanato marked a milestone, it was with 21, in 1992, that the company really found their groove. Setting the pattern for the future, this piece was created to a commissioned score by Brazilian musicians – in this case, by Marco Antônio Guimarães and his group Uakti, an experimental ensemble known for inventing their own musical instruments. In a parallel movement, Rodrigo began inventing a more Brazilian dance style in response to the music, melding classical technique with local rhythms, dynamics, stances and gestures. “I was trying to find,” he said in a 2005 television documentary, “our way of doing, our way of being, our way of walking.”
What is this way? Given that Rodrigo has characteristically drawn inspiration from a range of popular Brazilian music over the last two decades – including the avant-garde folk of Tom Zé, the lyric melodies of Caetano Veloso, the experimental rock of Arnaldo Antunes, the Arabic-Afro-Brazilian fusions of João Bosco – perhaps it is best illustrated by a musical analogy. In a 2005 interview, Paulo Pederneiras explained that the broad category known as música popular brasileira (popular Brazilian music, or MPB as it is commonly known) emerged as a mixture of highbrow music imported from Europe blended with popular styles and urban rhythms. It is a diverse and lively field, its music sophisticated and highly textured. Something similar happened with the Grupo Corpo style, the synthesis of an imported classical dance tradition with local accents, gestures and rhythms. And just as MPB often combines contrasting layers – fluid melodic lines underpinned by syncopated rhythms, or melancholic lyrics piercing an upbeat ambience, for example – so does Corpo’s loose and limber dance style: balletic moves are squeezed and stretched as if by an accordion, punchy kicks are offset against curves or caresses, rippling spines and ribbony arms float above percussive steps like streamers at a carnival. It’s a dense and highly inflected style, but the dancers deliver it as if it were second nature.
And perhaps it is. “I’d heard a lot about ‘Brazilian dance’,” recalled Rodrigo in the TV documentary, “but it always seemed reduced to themes, or characters, or history – the dance was always a vehicle.” By turning, instead, to music for inspiration, he found a way not to represent Brazil through dance, but to be Brazilian within it. “Our way”, he would call it.