Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker has just finished rehearsing with her dance company on a sultry afternoon in Rio de Janeiro. “It’s been an exhausting week,” she says. Leaving her dancers to regain their breath, she breezes through the cafe of the newly renovated building that houses her company and school. She checks timetables, adjusts the air-conditioning, recommends food, fields questions. She says “Wow!” a lot, a mark of her enthusiasm for pretty much everything.
Colker, 45, has always been a multi-tasker. As a child, she studied ballet, jazz, tap and contemporary dance. She also learned the piano, played professional volleyball for the Rio team and took a degree in psychology. “Doing many things at the same time was like, wow!” she says. “And I always needed to do well.”
Her career in dance has been no less varied. While performing with the Grupo Coringa company in Rio, she taught dance to a motley group of students – actors, musicians, architects and doctors. She worked on fashion shows, as a movement director for theatre productions, and as a dance director for pop and rock videos. She regularly choreographs for samba schools in the Rio carnival parades, and last year was commissioned to make a piece in Hamburg, about football. The resulting work, Maracanã, named after Rio’s famous stadium, will tour Germany during this year’s World Cup.
“I need challenges all the time,” Colker says. “But it’s mixed with anxiety. Partly that’s my personality, partly it’s my upbringing.” Born in Brazil of Russian-Jewish parents, Colker says that for her “being Jewish is not only a religion, it’s a culture. I have this upbringing that teaches that you must do well in order to survive. In one sense, that was very good for me. In another, it was a little stressful. But one thing’s for sure: I only know how to do things with passion.”
“Passion” was the name she gave a section of Vulcão, the work with which she launched her company in 1994. Encouraged by its success, Colker went on to make a series of athletic, striking pieces. She worked mostly with the same team of collaborators, notably designer Gringo Cardia, who created large, apparatus-like sets – a giant hamster wheel in Rota (1997), a two-storey house in Casa (1999) and a floor covered in vases in 4-by-4 (2002).
She sends her dancers scampering over these sets as if they were adventure playgrounds or assault courses
Colker sends her dancers scampering over these sets as if they were adventure playgrounds or assault courses. They flip upside down, spin around poles, dive off platforms and vault over bars. “Many people think I am looking for risk, and that could be true,” Colker says. “But I am also fascinated by the relationship between movement and space. If I just work with a plain stage, it doesn’t seem rich enough for the idea behind the piece.”
To illustrate the point, she talks about the forest of hanging ropes that opens her newest piece, Knot, and its relationship to the underlying theme of desire. “I had done a piece called She, with Lou Reed’s music Venus in Furs. It was also the title of a book by de Sade, about sadomasochism. And then I began to think about desire. That was my first contact with the idea of ropes. Ropes are fetishistic instruments. They have a technique: bondage. Imagine the reins of a horse, controlling all that animal wildness and freedom. Ropes can strangle, they can knot or release. And ropes are almost like bodies: they are sinuous, they bend and stretch.”
Knot premiered last year in Rio, selling out a 1,200-seat theatre for three months – a phenomenal run for contemporary dance. Yet much of the regular dance audience is unimpressed, and critics have given lacerating reviews, complaining of literalness, a lack of sophistication and vacuous effects.
“Some dance writers always have problems with my work,” Colker says. “But for an artist the important thing is to connect with what audiences need – that’s the case with film, architecture, music. Dance is a little different because the dance world is small. It’s like a family, with the same audience and the same performers. For me the critics don’t make much practical difference.”
Last year Colker realised a long-held dream – the founding of her own school. The building, dating from 1890 and situated in a historic but dilapidated area of downtown Rio, was in ruins when she found it. It’s now a cavernous, beautifully restored complex of studios and offices, buzzing with activity. Colker is proud of the workshops and talks. “The important thing for me is to relate contemporary dance to the contemporary world. To music, to poetry, to theatre and philosophy. Well, OK, maybe philosophy is something dancers don’t want to study. But I want them to study!” She grows even more animated, arms outstretched, leaning out of her seat. “I want to give! And sometimes I even say, ‘You don’t need to pay!'” Whatever you make of Colker’s work, there’s pretty much only one response to the force of her personality: wow.