MIX. That pretty much sums up Deborah Colker, as singular and varied as her native Rio de Janeiro. “My work is like Brazil,” she said in an interview with critic Donald Hutera, “with the mix of colours, the dynamics and rhythms, the happiness and ambitions … You can see all of life here. Its not good. Its not bad. Its incredible!”
For Colker, life is on the move; flux is her home ground. Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Colker’s ancestry is Russian-Jewish, a heritage which retains a strong influence on her, not as a religion but as a way of feeling and thinking. “It is living with a nomadic existence. To search for knowledge more than faith, to make connections with different places and people.” (It seems only appropriate that I managed to catch up with her in transit: Heathrow Terminal 3, check-in Zone E.)
Her training and background are equally varied. She studied music for ten years as a child, and began ballet classes at the age of seven. Later, at sixteen, she also trained in jazz and tap. But at eighteen she fell in love with contemporary dance – “because,” she explains, “of the possibilities of its language. And I still seek to experiment with that movement to this day.”
Now, over twenty years later, she has her own company with five hugely popular shows to its name. But don’t imagine that Colker simply trod a straight career path; she is much more wayward than that. She played volleyball for the Rio team, she studied psychology at university. And besides, at that time there was very little contemporary dance in Rio.
She did, however, join the early and influential contemporary dance company Grupo Coringa, founded by Graziela Figueiroa, a Uruguayan who had danced with American choreographer Twyla Tharp. It was a formative experience for Colker, where she also learned about production and lighting. She stayed with the group for eight years, while Figueiroa, something of a mentor at the time, taught her “to put experience into my dancing, to make questions, to find pleasure.”
She also began teaching contemporary dance, to an assortment of students that included not only dancers but also actors, musicians, architects and doctors, enjoying their range of experience and expertise. “The dancer has to find physical pleasure as well as aesthetic pleasure,” she says. “Classical technique is fundamental as a technical base. However,” she insists, “it’s necessary to explore other possibilities of body movement, to enrich one’s physical potential – or better, one’s physical productivity.”
She was melding pop with art, infusing spectacle with soul, mingling media – and learning showmanship.
Meanwhile, Colker’s own productivity was zooming ahead. She worked on fashion shows, she was movement director for more than thirty theatre productions, she choreographed for the Mangueira School of Samba. She collaborated on videos for pop and rock groups such as Legião Urbana, an icon of its day, and choreographed live shows by singer Fernanda Abreu, a mix of samba, funk and rap. She was melding pop with art, infusing spectacle with soul, mingling media – and learning showmanship.
In 1993 Colker and a group of her students performed a short piece of choreography at a dance festival, and its success led her to form her own company the following year. She called her first piece Vulcão (Volcano). “It was like: EXPLOSION!” she explains happily. “I put thirty-three years of life in this performance. There were many mistakes, but it was my history!”
After her second work, Velox(1995), inspired by the kinetics and physical dynamics of sports, she was invited to create Mix for the 1996 Biennale in Lyon, featuring excerpts from her first two pieces. Now riding the wave of increasing popular acclaim, she went on to make the gorgeous, captivating Rota(Wheel, 1997), a fairground joyride topped off by a huge 22-foot wheel on which the dancers caper like chipper hamsters. Her latest piece, Casa (House, 1999), also features bold set designs, a multi-level construction in which the dancers portray the extraordinariness of ordinary life within a single house.
Is there a distinctive Colker approach in these works? All are impressively designed and lit, with striking sets and sassy costumes. And “mix” comes to mind, of course, not only in the themes and styles of dance and music, but also in the company dancers, who come with a variety of backgrounds, including ballet, contemporary, jazz and circus.
In fact, perhaps the basis of Colker’s work is this grounding in physical action, in kinetics and motor sensation. You can see the influence of sports and spectacle on Colker’s style, in its directness of action, its clarity of intention, its visual display. And because her works never lose that visceral connection with action and image, they can be abstract without being conceptual, emotional without being dramatic, personal without being narrative. Physical, with a child’s sense of play and pleasure and an adult’s self-awareness and sexuality.
Colker herself elaborates: “The questions of contemporary dance – the geometry and physics of movement, balance, weight, flow, the relation with space – are always present, just as are daily life and pleasure in movement. But often the themes of my dances come from my personal life. I like to communicate through dance, to transform movement into action and beauty.”
Action she describes as movement with intention, with intelligence and thought. And beauty? “Dance talks about form, form with intention, form with emotion. It has the constant potential to create images, to create beauty. When you have a movement, you can study it and transform it into a beautiful movement.”
Colker’s dances are dynamic, legible, bold and populist. For her, “art is pleasure, it is entertainment, not something heavy. It is important to me to make contact with the audience. But that can be different with different people: it can be intellectual, an emotion, an aesthetic feeling. I like to see different types of people in the audience, children and old people, intellectual people, artists, technical professionals. For me it’s important not so much to understand, but to connect.”
Mix combines excerpts from Colker’s first two works, Vulcão and Velox. The three episodes from Vulcão start with ‘Machines’, a play on the body as a precision piece of technology, the dancers synchronising their fine-tuned movements in robotic formations. ‘Fashion Show’ is a kohled, sidelong glance at the catwalk. With its hip attitude and chic posturing, costumes both concealing and revealing the body beneath, this strut is a hot come-on that keeps a cool distance. ‘Passion’ is a medley of duets set to a string of love songs. The dancers fly, fall and fight, foundering on the turbulent tides of desire. This love, these loves, are neither happy nor harmonious, but driven only by intensity of feeling.
a hot come-on that keeps a cool distance
Mix ends with four sections from Velox, a piece based on sport and inspired Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympiad and Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic studies of movement. Colker sees a great connection between dance and sport, with its athleticism, its precision and its passions, each sport also generating a distinctive style and look. And she was captivated by the way the players constantly strive to exceed their limits, to outdo themselves and each other.
In ‘Mechanics’, she deals with the physical achievements of balance, space and geometry. ‘Quotidian’ is concerned with everyday gestures, while ‘Sonar’ is based on suspension and fall. The final part, ‘Mountaineering’, features a huge wall studded with grips, and here the dancers certainly exceed ordinary human limits: climbing the vertical surface, they use legs as arms, hands as feet, and pay scant regard to which way is up.