Thursday, 5 November 2009

For a Brazilian Choreographer, Dance as an Obstacle Course

Published: October 21, 2009

In a country where nearly everyone is a dancer, or at least aspires to be one, Deborah Colker still manages to stand out, both for her versatility and her unwillingness to be pigeonholed. Over a career spanning nearly 30 years, this Brazilian choreographer has worked in settings as aesthetically distinct as the Theatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, a temple of high art, and the samba schools that parade on the streets a few blocks away during the city’s annual Carnival competition.

“I don’t acknowledge barriers,” Ms. Colker, lithe and blond and brimming with enthusiasm, said in an interview this week as her company was preparing for four performances beginning on Thursday at City Center, its first New York City appearance in nearly a decade. “My attitude is kind of punk, in that I don’t respect rules or dogmas. I like mixtures, the challenges they present, and finding new solutions to old questions.”

Perhaps the most salient characteristic of Ms. Colker’s work since she founded the company that bears her name 15 years ago has been her desire to toy with perceptions of dimension, direction and distance. An early piece, “Rota,” featured dancers performing in a large spinning wheel, like hamsters at play, and another, “Velox,” required them to scale walls as if they were rock climbers competing at the X Games.

“Why must the stage always be horizontal and the dancer vertical?” she asked, and not rhetorically. “Why not use movement to subvert space and question gravity? And so I set about investigating ways to do that, in both the horizontal and vertical planes.”

Her most recent work, the disorienting “Cruel,” features three revolving mirrors with portholes, which enable the dancers to travel through those reflective spaces. And one part of “4x4,” the four-part, hourlong program her 17-member troupe will perform in Manhattan, employs 90 porcelain vases, spaced a little more than a yard apart in a chessboard pattern, as a sort of obstacle course around which her dancers must maneuver.

“Deborah is always working from concepts, and is very interested in things like physics and geometry,” said Donald Hutera, a London-based critic who is co-author of “The Dance Handbook” and has written extensively about Ms. Colker. “Her approach is big and colorful and quite playful, and there’s a physical riskiness to what she does, but that doesn’t mean it’s empty or shallow. She’s trying to place all this scientific stuff in a very kinetic context that is also very entertaining.”

When Ms. Colker’s company was starting, the Brazilian dance establishment reacted to that approach with dismay and even a certain disdain. Tatiana Leskova, a lead dancer in the Original Ballet Russe who trained generations of ballerinas after arriving in Brazil in 1944, initially dismissed Ms. Colker’s pieces as “at best gymnastics,” though she later changed her mind and became a supporter.

But it was precisely the insouciance and playfulness of Ms. Colker’s work that led Cirque du Soleil to invite her to write, direct and choreograph a new show, “OVO,” commemorating that Canadian group’s 25th anniversary. “OVO,” which means egg in Portuguese, is a humorous but environmentally conscious evocation of life and love in the insect world that had its premiere in Montreal in May and will move to the United States next month; it is scheduled to arrive in New York in May 2010.

“This show is about energy, spirit, color and sound,” said Chantal Tremblay, Cirque du Soleil’s creative director. “Deborah’s signature is energy and movement, and that is what she brought to ‘OVO.’ The way she uses her dancers is very direct and physical, and of course we were also interested in her use of the apparatus of wheels, walls and vases.”

Ms. Colker is the first woman to choreograph a Cirque du Soleil show, but she has had plenty of experience directing large dance ensembles in settings outside her comfort zone. For three years in the mid-1990s, Rio’s oldest Afro-Brazilian samba school, Mangueira, hired her to choreograph part of its Carnival presentation, an experience she repeated a decade later with another leading samba group, Viradouro.

“I love and respect the samba and adore Carnival, but it’s not my world,” she said. “Carnival has rules, and I had to respect them, and so it was difficult at times. But it was a very exciting and worthwhile experience. It’s been said that Carnival is a gigantic street opera, and that’s the way I approached it.”

Born in 1961, Ms. Colker was raised in Rio in a family of Jewish immigrants from Russia. Her father, a violinist and music teacher, gave her a grounding in classical European culture. As a child, she studied piano for a decade and played volleyball with sufficient skill and intensity that she was twice named to an all-state team alongside players who would eventually win medals in the Olympics. A serious commitment to dance, however, came only when she was 16, an age when many girls are giving up ballet.

“Dance is very much a collegial activity, and I liked that after the extreme solitude of playing the piano,” she explained. “I had a lot of adrenaline too, a physical energy that I brought from sports, an activity which, like dance, requires discipline, competitiveness and persistence. But I also felt a necessity for creative expression” that volleyball could not satisfy.

“Art is not a question of winning and losing,” she added. “It’s about exploration and experimentation and transformation and discovery, and I take great pleasure in that.”

After studying psychology, Ms. Colker danced with a Brazilian company. Gradually, she also began choreographing videos aimed for MTV and worked for nearly a decade as a “movement director” for some of Brazil’s best-known actors and theater and film directors, helping them with staging and learning to use body language to deepen the impact of texts.

Ms. Colker resumed her piano studies in 1999, and makes extensive use of her musical training in her dance pieces. The “Vasos” section of “4x4” opens with her playing a Mozart sonata, while other segments draw on Eno-influenced ambient sounds, the jazz standard “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and fragments composed by the electronic-music pioneer Raymond Scott.

“Deborah has a sharp and decisive sensibility, and is very attentive to music, about which she is passionate, almost possessive,” the Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso, long an admirer of her work, said in a telephone interview from Rio. “Her work is poetic, but never in a diaphanous or ethereal way. She’s a dancer who thinks like a musician, in that the sense of time and rhythm in her choreography is quite accentuated.”

Though its United States appearances have been rare, Ms. Colker’s company often performs in Europe, where audiences have responded enthusiastically to that breezy Brazilian style. She won an Olivier Award, London’s equivalent of the Tony, for “Velox” and another piece in 2001, and was also commissioned by the Berlin Ballet to create a piece for that company.

“Deborah is a Vesuvius of a personality whose work is strong and engaging and connects with people, not just an elite,” Mr. Hutera said. “She can be popular and profound, sophisticated and subtle, carefree but serious. She is always embracing contradictions and embodies a lot of those contradictions herself.”

Source: New York Times

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