Brazil's colonial roots date back to the year 1500 when the Portuguese came to town, wreaked havoc on the vast area's millions of indigenous residents, then began importing slaves in droves from West Africa to labor on plantations. Centuries later, one byproduct of those dishonorable intentions is the fascinating intermingling of cultural experiences and heritages -- from African and European to Native American and Asian -- that permeates every aspect of the society. Nowhere has this been more dramatically or richly portrayed than in the arts.
Take dance, for example. One of Brazil's cultural treasures is Grupo Corpo, formed in 1975 by the Pederneiras brothers, who began their enduring vision with a dance school in their parents' home in Belo Horizonte, a city about 300 miles north of Rio. If you haven't heard of Grupo Corpo, it's because they've been busy touring Europe, earning a reputation there and in their homeland as Brazil's most successful dance troupe. Although U.S. appearances are infrequent (they last toured states in 1991), when they do perform here, such as at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival this past summer, they generate excitement in audiences and critics alike. As a Boston Globe review stated, "Tickets are selling fast and for good reason."
The reasons most often cited are the group's technical prowess, steeped in a classical base, as well as its ability to fuse the nation's wide array of dance styles and movement vocabularies (from West African pelvic accents and balletic partnering to capoeira kicks) with its own contemporary framework. Watching Grupo Corpo is like a crash course in ethnodanceology (if such a study exists), viewed through the bodies of twenty gifted and energetic dancers. They travel as one complex organism effortlessly, or so it seems, through steaming accordioned sambas and textured African rhythms. Fernando Velloso, the group's program coordinator and set designer for the past twelve years, says this rich stew is "nothing extraordinary" -- just part and parcel of the reality of Brazilian life.
But the attempt to recognize and convey such a layered society through their art is precisely what makes the act extraordinary. The Miami performance will reprise last year's acclaimed Jacob's Pillow show at which they performed the U.S. premiere of Benguelêalong with Parabelo, both full-length works choreographed by Rodrigo Pederneiras. Parabelo, explains Velloso on the phone from Grupo Corpo headquarters in Belo Horizonte, is inspired by the "very hot ... very religious" state of Bahia, in northeastern Brazil. The scene is set with orange, red, and yellow costumes; giant sculpted heads, which represent ex votos (or sacred offerings); and a commissioned score from innovative Brazilian troubadours Tom Zé and Zé Miguel Wisnick. Benguelê with music by João Bosco, explains Velloso, evokes the "African influence in the Brazilian culture -- black songs, black culture, black movements...." The piece also references congado, a colorful religious festivity in Brazil that hearkens back to the motherland. Adds Velloso: "The most important influence in Brazilian culture is of course the African influence."
Unfortunately owing to a lack of public funding, Grupo Corpo relies on another culture to keep moving -- corporate culture. "Please mention our official sponsor [Brazilian oil company] Petrobras," says Velloso. "They give us one half million dollars per year."