Competence, discipline and confidence were to be seen in full measure when the Brazilian contemporary company Grupo Corpo performed two works at Sadlers Wells this week. Each of the nineteen dancers threw --often literally-- him/herself into the demanding pulse-racing choreographies, exhibiting remarkable strength and bristling energy while contributing a South American tang to the contemporary dance domain. With a classical ballet base that gives them grace, balance and upper body fluidity, the dancers now push on to display the thrusts and force of the contemporary medium. Boys spring into the air with the lightness and height of hunting jaguars, the girls send flexed-footed legs shooting sky-high, or strut with Latin awareness. While being bare-footed or wearing soft dance bootees, they often skimmed the floor as though on pointe. But the general impression of their dancing is of non-stop Amazonian physicality in movement and dexterity.

Netherlands Radio Philharmonic © Simon van Boxtel
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic
© Simon van Boxtel

The company was a family enterprise founded in 1975 by brothers Paulo and Rodrigo Pederneiras with sister Miriam as a dancer. Their generous parents handed over the family homestead in Belo Horizonte for a base, and the small team quickly grew in size and reputation. Their first controversial work, Maria, was so successful financially and artistically (despite the repressive military regime of those times) that they were able to expand and establish a larger company and ballet school. Today Paulo is the artistic director, Rodrigo is choreographer, Miriam is choreographic assistant, with various other relatives-- Pedro, Gabriel, Jose Luiz --holding other important posts.

Having seen the company on tour in Spain in the early 1990’s when the highly colourful, exuberant repertoire was definitely more indigenous and folkloric based; there was initial disappointment now, that the costumes and offered fare initially looked like all other contemporary groups. Today the Grupo Corpo dancers come in all shapes, sizes and colour and show more sophistication, following the trends of the international contemporary scene. But there are still plenty of ‘Brazilian’ give-away moments—the subtle wiggle of hips, the easy relaxing fluidity and sashaying of the body plus that inner Latino pride that says ‘look at me’. In Ima, Rodrigo brings the grey-clad male dancers across the stage at floor level --crawling face-up, backwards on their hands with the women attached to them. Recorded music, mixing traditional instruments with electronic, offers the impetus to set the pace, and the dancers come and go in small or large groupings, frenetically sending limbs in varying directions. Some girls just march across the back of the stage, others bounce with Irish Riverdance lightness, while the men race on to spin and leap, sparking off each other. At times couples roll over each other, or are thrown and caught. The action, be it in large groups or a single dancer, flows non-stop, the steps much repeated but the pace relentless. The bare stage, lit in different colours during this 40-minute piece, offers an unimpeded view of the dancers, who also change the colours of their biker shorts and leotards.

While the programme notes tell us that the first piece is about: 'the principles of interdependence and complementarity that govern human relationships’, the second is similarly vague: ‘ about human perplexity and inexorable pettiness before the vastness of the Universe’, whilst also giving a fleeting mention of Brazil’s great past-time, football. So it is best not to try to understand the complexities but just enjoy the dancing!

In Onqoto, the music— from pan pipes to tender love songs-- and the dance depict contrasting feelings inherent in the human condition with the slight inference of the rivalry that exists between Rio’s two popular football teams. So one moment we see and hear of romance only to be quickly followed by brutality and rejection. The set is again bare but the circular backcloth has tight elastic strands which allow the dancers to pop on and off with meticulous timing. In black with heeled shoes, the group begins with loud tapping as they bunch and shuffle around the stage. Then one breaks away and starts leaping like the Chosen One in The Rite of Spring. Later two couples --boy/girl, two girls -- smooch and caress passionately, only minutes later, to roughly shake, push and repel each other in some outstanding physical dance moves. Another moment sees some glistening golden primeval object very slowly creeping forward out of darkness to the strains of another ballad (oh to have understood the words), and to unravel and reveal himself for a split second at the stage’s edge as a huge naked man!

The company emerges in football socks and knee-pads and throw themselves around, landing on their knees from great height as the fever pitch mounts. Each of the company members deserved the cheering given by the audience at the end of the evening, for their sheer hard work and tremendous effort.