Deborah Colker is at once both single-minded and eclectic. She has had the drive and vision to turn her company, founded in 1994, into one of Brazil’s most popular dance groups, regularly touring sell-out shows both at home and internationally, and with its own permanent studios and year-round sponsorship.
But her background, interests and sources of inspiration are as diverse as her energies and ambitions are focussed. She was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, but her ancestors were Russian-Jewish. She studied piano for ten years, then psychology at university for five. She began ballet at the age of seven, later also training in jazz dance and tap. At eighteen, she fell in love with contemporary dance, and performed for several years with the pioneering Coringa dance company, an influential group that forged part of Rio dance history during the 1980s. During the 80s too, Colker worked as a movement director in theatre, for fashion shows, for rock and pop concerts, and music video. Oh, and she was also a championship volleyball player.
Oh, and she was also a championship volleyball player.
Those diverse facets of her life are often reflected in her work. Yet the choreography is hardly autobiographical and certainly not confessional; it is fired by action, kinetics and spectacle. As critic Helena Katz comments, Colker seems to filter her experience “through the senses first, then later transforming them into movement. If it hasn’t been tried out, actively lived, it doesn’t inspire choreographic material.”
Take, for example, the section called Passion from Vulcão (1994), which deals with the energy, pursuit, vagaries and folly of love. It is built on a visceral vocabulary of runs, falls, chases, turns and lifts, so that instead of expressing individual feelings or recounting personal histories, the dancers seem to be foundering on the turbulent tides of desire itself. And in the sports-inspired Velox (1995), the will to excel, to exceed ordinary human limits, is evoked not by direct imitation or plot, but through sequences that explore physical principles of anatomy, balance, space and weight. Mechanics and momentum also underlie Rota (1999), but to utterly different effect: it is a refreshing cocktail of a piece, bubbling with mischievous play and laced with a shot of eroticism.
Firmly rooted in kinetic action and motor sensation, Colker’s works are abstract without being conceptual, emotive without being dramatic. This, combined with her obvious pleasure in taking physical risks and her boldly designed sets and costumes, makes her work legible, dynamic, entertaining – and enormously popular.
Colker is happy if she appeals to a range of people as eclectic or singular as she is herself. Happy too if they enjoy her work for a range of reasons. “Art is pleasure, and entertainment,” she says. “It is important for me to make contact with the audience… important not so much that they understand, but that they connect.”
“To construct a house is to construct spaces,” says Colker. “To dance is to occupy spaces, the architecture of movement.”
Look at the opening duet of Casa (House) and already you see that architecture in motion. The dancers delineate planes, lines and surfaces, suspended on the different levels of each other’s bodies, slipping through the windows of each other’s arms.
Casa links a common physical space – a house – to the everyday events that happen within it. Through the course of the piece, we gradually enter the house, witness daily life behind closed doors, peek under the roof. There is cooking, sleeping, eating, washing, dressing, at once both ordinary and extraordinary. There is interaction, solitude, boredom, dreams. Zones and spaces – bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, hall – are indicated by the actions that take place within them.
But if movement defines space, so does space affect movement, for the house itself is a mobile set that plays an active role in the choreography. Dance and set work symbiotically, action and architecture combining to create a sense of the house as a kind of multifarious, living and breathing social organism: Casa has walls of conflict, windows of wondering and corridors of communication, its pipes gurgle with conviviality and its wires crackle with human energy.
Acclaimed set designer Gringo Cardia has been with Colker’s company since it was formed in 1994. Like Colker, he has an eclectic history, having worked in scenography for both dance and theatre, in visual arts, graphic design and as a director of music video. Casa is something of a return to an older root, for he initially trained in architecture, and in fact it was during this time that he and Deborah Colker first met.
In Casa the set is both integral to and active in the choreography. How did they set about working on the idea? “Casa took a year to be made after our first thoughts,” says Cardia. “We discussed our ideas and concepts, then I made some sketches. I was inspired a lot by the paintings of Edward Hopper, and the minimalism of Bauhaus architecture. After agreeing the drafts we began to construct the set.”
“But Casa was rehearsed for 4 months without scenery,” elaborates Colker. “When the first set arrived I had to juggle a lot of movement and also make new material specific to the set.”
“This kind of set needs to be tried out and tested physically,” agrees Cardia. “Throughout the year there were many adjustments to be made and refined. Actually, I’ve never had a set when I’ve had so much time to think through the details with such care.”
“The set is our stage,” adds Colker, “so we kept working on it until we were satisfied.”
Just as the theme of Casa shows action and architecture in mutual relation, so the practicalities of set construction influenced the construction of the choreography. “The challenge was to make a house that transformed, that opened and closed,” says Cardia. “The technical challenge was to construct a moving structure for dancing, on three levels, and which was still safe and solid.”
“I couldn’t have kept opening and closing such a large structure,” explains Colker, “so in the choreography I gradually entered and opened up the house, until eventually it closes up again, like at the beginning of the piece.”
Sixteen dancers, 6 tonnes of set: the startling achievement of Casa is that this open-plan house is so light, spacious and airy.