THE DANCERS of Brazil’s Grupo Corpo may seem relaxed, but they are rigorously trained and perform with military precision, writes Kelly Apter.
Making it look easy is the job of all good dancers. The effortless leaps, boundless energy and muscle stretching flexibility all separate those on stage from the mere mortals watching them.
With their languid, laid-back style, the dancers of Brazil’s Grupo Corpo could easily fool you into thinking that hard work is not on their agenda. Loose of hip, they shimmy onto the stage with bodies as fluid as water. But just as Dolly Parton once said, it costs a lot of money to look that cheap, and it takes Grupo Corpo a whole lot of time and effort to look that relaxed.
Watching them rehearse on stage in St Pölten on the outskirts of Vienna during their recent European tour, the level of preparation behind each performance starts to become clear.
Moving together like a shared breath (Grupo Corpo translates rather aptly as “body group”) their capacity for perfect unison may look like the most natural thing in the world, but it’s as hard-won as the impressive flexibility they all display.
Tight, synchronised movement is just one of the reasons the company has been winning over audiences for almost 40 years.
Making a welcome return to the capital after their triumphant 2010 appearance at the Edinburgh International Festival, Grupo Corpo will end their six-week UK tour in Scotland, performing a double-bill of works: Sem Mim and Parabelo.
Those who have seen the company previously will remember that there’s something special about them. Like many other contemporary dance outfits, their work is underpinned by a ballet technique.
Infused throughout the movement, however, is a smooth Latin vibe which gives everything they do a distinctive quality – a quality that comes directly from the choreographer Rodrigo Pederneiras.
“All the dancers have a very strong classical ballet background,” explains Paulo Pederneiras – Grupo Corpo’s artistic director, set and lighting designer, and brother to Rodrigo.
“And then, once they join the company, they have ballet classes every day – to give them that technique.
“But then Rodrigo has developed this very personal way of moving, which always starts from the hips. It’s his own unique style, and has become the Grupo Corpo trademark.”
Today, that trademark is enjoyed by audiences the world over. But back in 1975, when Paulo, Rodrigo and several other members of the Pederneiras family first thought about starting a dance company, they were without peers.
“At that time in Brazil, dancing was kind of elite,” says Paulo. “We just had official companies and classical ballet imported from Europe – there weren’t any contemporary dance companies in the country. So the idea was to create a professional group with a more contemporary language.”
Not only did they venture into unchartered territory, they proved to the wider cultural world that big things can happen outside the main cities.
“We know that Grupo Corpo has influenced a lot of other companies in Brazil,” says Paulo. “Because first of all we proved that it was possible to have a private contemporary dance company in Brazil – and secondly, that it can happen not just in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo but in our home city of Belo Horizonte.”
In the early days, they brought in choreographic skill from outside, but after retiring from dancing in 1981, Rodrigo became the in-house choreographer, with a very specific way of working.
“Each new piece always starts with the music,” explains Paulo. “So every two years, we invite a composer – almost always Brazilian – to create a new piece of music for us. We wait for it to arrive, and then it influences the choreography, the set and costume designs.
“In the case of Parabelo, Tom Zé took the rhythms, colours and culture that we have in the north east of Brazil and put that into the music.”
A largely rural part of Brazil, the north east has its own very particular traditions, illustrated by Paulo’s set design for the piece, which features large heads and old family photographs emblazoned on the back wall.
While Parabelo started life in the countryside, Sem Mim is all about the ocean. Composers Carlos Núñez and José Miguel Wisnik were inspired by medieval songs about a woman waiting for her lover to come back from sea. To that end, Rodrigo’s movement is all about ebb and flow – while Paulo’s set design is a relatively simple but highly effective fishing net, which hangs above the entire stage.
“I start with a lot of ideas,” explains Paulo of the design process, “and then I strip it all back to arrive at the most simple idea possible. I hate having lots of effects, so I really try to make it as simple as I can – but always with meaning.”
With the creative team so closely tied to the music, inevitably the dancers have to be, too. For newcomers to the company, locking into the Pederneiras’ way of working isn’t always easy. Fortunately, they have Carmen Purri to help smooth their path.
One of the founder members of the group back in 1975, Purri danced with Grupo Corpo for 23 years before taking on the dual role of rehearsal director and choreographer’s assistant. So she, more than most, knows how important it is for the dancers to have an ear for music.
“It’s essential,” she says. “Rodrigo is very musical, and sometimes it’s hard for the dancers to hear exactly what he does in the music. So that’s part of my role – to help the dancers hear what he hears, and translate the music for them.”
Purri’s long tenure with the company is not unusual. At Grupo Corpo, dancer loyalty is strong – partly because of circumstance, but also because of the company’s egalitarian approach. So while Purri is a hard taskmaster (that tight unison is often down to her rigid attention to detail), she and the rest of the team treat all the dancers as equals.
“When a dancer gets into Grupo Corpo, usually they stay,” says Purri. “First of all because it’s a stable company, an important company, and there’s a very nice atmosphere here.
“But what’s different about Grupo Corpo is that we don’t have a ‘first’ or principal dancer. We always say that we have 22 first dancers, because depending on the choreography, each one can be that first dancer.”
•Grupo Corpo, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 4-5 November, www.grupocorpo.com.br/en