Like sparks from a Catherine wheel … Rota (1997)
A small person with a huge presence, Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker combines the competitive edge of sport, the self-discipline of ballet, the freedom of modern dance and the daredevilry of circus into one big audience-friendly package.
Born in 1960 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, of Russian-Jewish parents, Colker is famous for her drive and energy – qualities she showed in abundance even as a child. She studied both ballet and piano for 10 years, but also became a championship volleyball player, competing professionally with the Rio team. From the age of 16, she began to channel her dynamism more towards dance, first studying jazz and tap. From 18 onwards, she switched to contemporary dance, her real love.
After graduating in psychology, she joined a local modern dance company. But by this time she was already involved in a much wider scene – she taught dance, choreographed music videos, rock concerts and fashion shows, worked as a movement director in theatre, and directed samba school parades for the Rio carnival. In 1994, she put all her energy into creating her own company, launching it with a new work, Vulcão. “It was like: explosion!” she says. Hence the title, “volcano”.
Running away with the circus … Ovo (2009)
Vulcão was the start of a stellar career. Colker’s striking, athletic yet accessible works struck a chord with international audiences who found contemporary dance too obscure. (That made for a lot of people.) Her own dance pieces with her own company have been the focus of her creativity ever since, but that doesn’t mean she has stopped multi-tasking. In 2002, she made Ela for the Berlin Comic Opera Ballet; and in 2005, again in Germany, she made Maracanã, a piece about football whose tour coincided with the 2006 Fifa World Cup. Also that year, Colker realised a long-held ambition and opened her own dance centre; and then last year, she created Ovo for Cirque du Soleil. She was the first woman to craft a show for the company in its 25-year history.
Watching Deborah Colker
Colker is never satisfied with a plain stage; she prefers a kind of prop playground. She throws in tables, walls, wheels and other obstacles that the dancers can hike up, hide under or swing over. She has a flair for the mechanics of movement, pushing her dancers to the edge and then pitching them off it. In Rota (1997) the dancers are ejected in long arcs from a giant hamster wheel, like sparks from a firework; in Casa (1998) they throw themselves from the roof of a two-storey house. She sets the dancers fiendish tasks, such as leaping and spinning across a floor that’s cross-hatched with 90 vases, as in 2002’s 4×4 – and she insists that they look their best while doing it. Her troupe, needless to say, has to be both fleet and fearless.
It’s typically Colker’s designer Gringo Cardia who provides the bold, striking sets; while the music is generally a montage of tunes – almost anything will do (Aphex Twin, Mozart, The Blue Danube).
Looking back … an overview of 15 years of Colker’s company
Colker’s works are abstract but accessible – even easy. She tends to present one idea at a time and stick with it for a whole scene; you won’t miss the point. This might be why her broad appeal does not, as a rule, extend to dance critics. True, the pieces can seem all gloss and little substance, but at their best they can deliver a powerful physical kick.
Cardia is Colker’s long-standing designer, while Berna Ceppas is her regular musical director.
In her native Rio, Colker filled a 1,200-seat theatre for an entire 14-week season – twice (in 1997 and 2006). That’s unheard of in modern dance. But that’s how popular she is.
In her own words
“I like big themes, but never ponderous ones.” – Interview with Valerie Gladstone, New York Times, 2000
“I don’t acknowledge barriers … I like mixtures, the challenges they present.” – Interview with Larry Rohter, New York Times, 2009
“I only know how to do things with passion.” – Interview with Sanjoy Roy, Guardian, 2006
“Sports gave me energy and physical discipline … Art is different. Art is discovery. You have to feel and to contemplate. But the idea of wanting to conquer obstacles – sports gave me the discipline for that.” – Interview with Elizabeth Dwoskin, Village Voice, 2009
Fleet and fearless … Deborah Colker’s Cruel (2008)
In other words
“Colker’s choreography marries multidisciplinary physical daring with high-concept design.” – Donald Hutera, Dance Magazine, 2000
“Whatever Colker’s credentials as a choreographer, she certainly knows how to give an audience a good time.” – Jenny Gilbert, Independent on Sunday, 1999
“When the line between sport and art disappears and you’re left with a moment of sheer physical beauty – that’s the kind of dream moment Colker is forever chasing in her dance.” – Keith Watson, Guardian, 2000
“Deborah Colker has already done so much in her life, you wonder how she ever found time to sleep. She is so wired up – Brazilian voice bursting with enthusiasm, face alive with nervous energy – you wonder if she can sleep.” – Nadine Meisner, Independent, 2002
“It was fascinating, sensual and evocative. I wanted to jump on the stage.”
That was what audience member Sophia Kakembo said of Knot (2006), according to a post-show vox-pop. Colker would have loved to hear it.
“It didn’t have the complexity I thought it would when I was reading about the metaphor of the knot” – Alun Davies’s verdict on Knot, in the same vox-pop.
Let go of this “reading” and “metaphor”, Alun! How about jumping on stage instead? With Sophia Kakembo?
‘Sensual and evocative’ … Knot (2006)
Grupo Corpo is the other (longer-standing) Brazilian contemporary dance company of similar scale. Cirque du Soleil occupies a similar position to Colker: adored by audiences, sniffed at by dance critics. Colker has some affinities with Momix, the American dance company that creates sculptural, multimedia spectacles; while US choreographer Elizabeth Streb (the “Evel Knievel of dance”) shares Colker’s love of physical risk.
Now watch this
Where to see her next
See the Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker website for performance dates.