Tom Fitzsimons - Dom Post
More than 30 years ago, when Brazil's most successful dance company was founded, it was just 11 people in the southern city of Belo Horizonte, well away from the country's big cultural centres.
Six of them were brothers and sisters – members of the Pederneiras family. Their mother and father generously moved out of their house to give them a space to get started in. When their first homemade show proved to be a huge Brazilian hit, they were on their way.
Today Grupo Corpo is a name known around the world, the troupe spend upwards of 70 days each year performing before audiences from Europe to the Americas.
The siblings still run the ship, from artistic director Paolo to choreographer Rodrigo, who has spent the intervening decades developing the company's signature dance language.
"Those brothers and sisters are still involved in the company now," says Grupo Corpo's programme co-ordinator Claudia Ribeiro. "The difference is that in the 70s, they were the dancers, they were on stage. Now they are backstage."
Grupo Corpo is visiting New Zealand for the first time for the arts festival. Ribeiro says the two pieces they are bringing are ideal for an audience that has never seen them before.
"It's a very nice programme to present. We chose this programme because I think it's two different pieces. Both have the trademark Grupo Corpo way of moving, but the two choreographies are completely different. That's why Grupo Corpo is successful till today, because we're trying to make new things each time."
The first piece is Parabelo, a 1997 work inspired by the country's poor northeastern regions.
"So the music and the rhythm and the colour – all those elements that you're going to see on stage – are based on this region. And you know, Brazil is a very big country, with different nuances between the north and the south. The northeast of Brazil is a very poor region, it's very hot, but on the other hand it's very rich in culture, in music, in handcraft, in popular art."
The second piece, 2005's Onqoto, created for the company's 30th anniversary, calls on another quintessentially Brazilian pastime – football, and in particular a rivalry between two famous Rio de Janeiro clubs.
But it also has a darker, or at least deeper, element to it as well, Ribeiro says.
"Onqoto, it's a kind of a question. It means `Where am I?'
"So Onqoto is kind of based on this existential question, I would say this human perplexing face of the universe."
Of course, she says, all of this is just background – inspiration. The work is very abstract. Very early Grupo Corpo pieces were more narrative and political by nature, but latter ones have avoided that.
A typical piece begins its life with a piece of commissioned music, usually from a Brazilian composer (Onqoto's music was written by Caetano Veloso, a famous local musician) though the company has also worked with foreigners, including Philip Glass.
Once that's ready, Rodrigo Pederneiras starts working on the choreography, and then the group's typically colourful costumes and sets are prepared. As Ribeiro says, the works have differed substantially, but there are common features to them.
All of the dancers are trained in classical ballet, she says. They spend two hours every day honing their technique.
"But since Rodrigo has been the choreographer; he has developed a very, very specific way of moving.
"So, of course, you are not going to see technical ballet on stage, not at all. It's completely contemporary."
Contemporary – and distinctively Brazilian, she says. Dancing, movement, rhythm – it's "in the blood" for her countrymen.
"So Rodrigo takes all those elements and then has developed his own way of moving. And there is one thing that is typical of his work – that is, very often you're going to see the movement starts from the hips. It's very Brazilian. If you see Brazilian people dancing the samba and things like that, there's always a lot of movement that comes from the hips."
That mixture – of traditional pirouettes and modern shimmies and shuffles – has won them accolades all over the show. The Guardian said the dancers' steps seem to "pour out of their sleek, supple limbs with unstoppable force". The New York Times called the effect "punchy and exciting" although it cautioned that "sometimes the company's loftier intentions get lost" in the high speed and sense of fun in the work.
What have Brazilians thought of seeing their hip-thrusting ways on stage? Ribeiro says they have an extremely loyal local audience.
"Very often, we hear people say `Grupo Corpo, we are proud of Grupo Corpo'. And they're happy to know that we're travelling all over the world, showing some kind of art that is Brazilian, but it's not folk. I mean, nothing against Carnival, nothing against samba, but those are part of the well-known Brazilian folk art. And our work is not that, so I think, in a general way, people are proud of that."