If the goal of the artist is to say something, the goal of the dancer is to transcend words and speak with the body. For brothers Roderigo and Paulo Pederneiras, raised in the city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in the 1960s, there was no existing language to express what they felt in their bodies. So they decided to create one.
Thirty-six years later, their dance company, Grupo Corpo (“Body Group”), has become one of Brazil’s most highly respected arts organizations. They’ve toured the globe, spent three years as the resident dance company for the Maison de la Dance in Lyon, France, and enjoyed a prime spot in last summer’s Edinburgh Festival. They’re known internationally for blending ballet and jazz techniques with Afro-Brazilian dance traditions, but attempts to classify them as a Brazilian dance company don’t sit well with Roderigo, who has served as the company’s choreographer since 1981.
“We hear a lot about being ‘ambassadors of Brazil,’” he admitted on the phone from his Los Angeles hotel room last week. “I think it’s too much. Yes, we’ve worked with well-known Brazilian composers, and I used to study popular dance in various regions of Brazil, so, of course, I still use that sometimes. But I think it’s also true that we have our own language.” It’s a language, Pederneiras went on to explain, that’s really universal and one that’s made them particularly popular with American audiences.
This Saturday, February 12, Grupo Corpo will make its Santa Barbara debut at the Granada. The program is devoted to two works: “Parabelo” from 1997, and the company’s most recent piece, “Ímã.” The former work is inspired by the culture of Sertão Nordestino—the backlands of northeastern Brazil—which Pederneiras referred to as “a very dry area where life is really hard.” He found inspiration for the work, he said, in the popular art of the region, which he described as “full of color. Their writing is absolutely full of happiness and so is their style of dancing,” he explained. The costumes for “Parabelo” incorporate those bright hues, and the choreography captures that buoyant attitude in swaying hips and shimmying shoulders. But “Parabelo” is far from a popular regional dance; the artists of Grupo Corpo are all highly trained ballet dancers, and Pederneiras shows off their technique in long lines and high extensions at the same time as he has them kicking and stomping to the lively music of that region.
“Ímã,” in contrast, is a conceptual work based on the dynamics of attraction and repulsion. “Ímã means magnet,” Pederneiras explained. “We stick with this very, very simple idea. It’s a much more urban work.”
From a foundling dance group unlike anything that had ever come out of Belo Horizonte, Grupo Corpo has grown to a 21-member company. Since 1992, they’ve commissioned original scores for each new ballet, and Pederneiras always works extensively with the musicians to get the sound he wants before he even enters the dance studio. It’s a very different situation, he acknowledges, from the one he and his brother faced when they started out in 1975.
“We created Grupo Corpo because, at the time, there was not a professional company in our region, and we were a group that wanted to make dance professional,” he explained. “That was almost 36 years ago. Now it’s absolutely different: Now we have many dance companies in Brazil—very good people—and the audience[s] are much, much bigger.” Instead of seeing these developments as competition, Pederneiras says the growth of the art form is good for everyone, from individual artists to the public at large. To that end, the company rehearses in a studio without doors, and passersby on the street often stop in to admire the dancers as they work. For Pederneiras, that’s one of the most satisfying parts of the job. “We have a very open way of working, and that’s a very good way to work,” he noted. “It’s not something heavy; it’s the opposite.”
Despite the fact that Grupo Corpo’s language is not strictly Brazilian, it doesn’t translate easily to every body. When he’s commissioned to set works on companies in Europe, for example, Pederneiras knows he won’t be able to teach classically trained dancers a whole new way of moving the hips and pelvis. And European audiences, like European dancers, tend to find Grupo Corpo’s vocabulary just a little bit foreign.
Americans, on the other hand, seem to love the stuff. “We are here in the States every year, and I think we have developed a public that really loves our work,” Pederneiras said. “The reaction of audiences here is fantastic. I think it’s because on some level they understand what we’re saying.”
“In dance,” he added, “that’s possible because we don’t need language.”
Grupo Corpo will perform at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Saturday, February 12, at 8 p.m. A Q&A with the artists will follow the show. For more information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.