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Grupo Corpo is much more than loose limbs

The Brazilian dance troupe's trademark repertory style combines classical ballet with modern dance, tango, rumba and many other elements.

January 23, 2011|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Grupo Corpo is one of Brazil's most celebrated dance companies.
Grupo Corpo is one of Brazil's most celebrated dance companies. (José Luiz Pederneiras )

"Sensuous." "Sultry." "Hot-blooded." "Carnal."

Those are typical descriptions of Brazil's Grupo Corpo dance troupe, from U.S., Canadian and European newspapers over the 35 years since the company's modest genesis. Although they may be accurate as far as they go, the terms are a reminder that certain cultural stereotypes die hard.

Not that Grupo Corpo necessarily minds. Speaking by phone the other day from his Belo Horizonte hometown in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, Rodrigo Pederneiras, the company's principal choreographer, agreed that the loose-limbed, erotically expressive style for which Grupo Corpo is known is practically a Brazilian birthright.

"I think the dance is very much in the blood of the Brazilian people," said Pederneiras, switching between halting English and fluent Spanish. "It's very strong."

But there are other, more cerebral qualities that have made Grupo Corpo, which will perform this week at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and next month in Santa Barbara, one of South America's most respected as well as popular classically trained contemporary ensembles.

The company, whose name in Brazilian Portuguese can signify the human body, a ballet corps, a "body" of work or a corporation, first came together as a family affair and remains one today. It was founded by Rodrigo's older brother Paulo Pederneiras, the group's longtime artistic director, along with Rodrigo, four other family members and six idealistic friends.

Or, as Rodrigo inserts with a laugh, "We were friends and lovers also."

Many miles removed from the nation's predominant cultural centers, the mega-cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the Pederneiras family and their creative comrades resolved to take matters into their own hands. "We were a group of young people who studied music in Belo Horizonte," Rodrigo said, "and we wanted to make a career of dancing. But there was no dance company here, so we formed our own."

In Brazil, the late 1960s and early 1970s were an epoch of political oppression and artistic fecundity. While an autocratic military government held sway, the country erupted with new vitality in the visual arts, fashion, design and music, notably through the fusionist, avant-garde Tropicalismo movement. Grupo Corpo's first work, "Maria, Maria," with music by the great, falsetto-voiced Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento and choreography by Oscar Araiz, an Argentine, caught the era's tenor with its narrative line about an impoverished African Brazilian woman.

But by all accounts it wasn't until 1978, when Rodrigo took over as in-house choreographer, that Grupo Corpo began to fully articulate its trademark repertory style: a combination of classical ballet with modern dance, tango, rumba and elements of the traditional Brazilian idioms of samba and capoeira, the mixed martial-arts and dance hybrid that suggests Bruce Lee channeling Mikhail Baryshnikov.

"We have looked for an accent more our own, more Brazilian," Rodrigo said. "We look a lot to the popular dances, the dances of the street."

Reviewers both in and outside Brazil soon came to praise the company's kinetic athleticism, a brand of sinuous poetry and seeming tirelessness that was like watching one of soccer star Ronaldinho's weaving, brilliantly improvisatory sprints toward goal. L.A. Times critic Lewis Segal, writing about an October 1990 appearance at UCLA's Royce Hall, noted the "masses of dancers endlessly repeating a litany of pleading hands, bobbing heads, hunching shoulders, twisting torsos, limping walks and despairing slumps to the floor."

"In its ethnic variety, technical power and inexhaustible stamina, Grupo Corpo makes a spectacular vehicle for [Rodrigo] Pedernerias' growing international importance," Segal wrote.

As Grupo Corpo's physical lexicon expanded and it moved from politically subtextual narrative pieces to more abstract work, so did the range of its musical tastes. Rodrigo and Paulo began creating works with music not only of seminal contemporary Brazilian rock-era singer-songwriters like Caetano Veloso and Arnaldo Antunes and the instrumental ensemble Uakti but also of Richard Strauss, Edward Elgar, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Philip Glass and Ernesto Lecuona, the so-called Cuban Gershwin.

"Prel├║dios," a 1985 piece that premiered at the First International Dance Festival of Rio de Janeiro, used 24 Chopin preludes interpreted by pianist Nelson Freire. "Missa do Orfanato" (1989) offered a quasi-operatic rendering of Mozart's Missa Solemnis that explored the legacy of Brazil's Roman Catholic inheritance from its Portuguese colonizers.

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