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Tropicalismo in White and Black

The Brazilian company, Grupo Corpo, peerless for their kaleidoscopic sets, costumes, choreography and their music, are touring the US with two reimagined works from just before Covid hit. Corpo’s founding choreographer, Rodrigo Pederneiras, was inspired to recreate a 2019 piece that had been simply titled “Gil.” After the pandemic shutdowns eased, composer Gilberto Gil reworked the samba, bossa nova and rock-infused score adding a pinch of electronica. They retitled it “Gil Refazendo,” and it opened the two-part program to a full house at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center last weekend.

Performance

Grupo Corpo: “Gil Refazendo,” “Gira”

Place

The Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. March 1, 2024

Words

Merilyn Jackson

Grupo Corpo in “Gira.” Photograph by Jose Luiz Pederneiras

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The musicians for both works form a triad with the choreography and artistic and cultural mission of Grupo Corpo, founded by the Pedro Pedernieros, the artistic director, Rodrigo and their family in 1975 in Sao Paulo. A small army of family, artists, administrators and friends keep the look alive and fresh, even as the dancers phase out and new ones replace them.

The closer “Gira,” has the unearthly spine-tingle of religious and spiritual movements and cults ecstasies. To music by the band Metá Metá (which means "three in one" in Yoruba) the trio works with the range of Brazilian musical genres, fusing jazz, rock samba and rhythms from Candomblé and other Afro-Brazilian religions Rodrigo has been immersed in for many years.

“Gil Refazendo” is loaded with enigmatic signifiers of Brazil’s volcanic political landscape, its history of slavery and poverty, through a mix of music that emanated from the ‘60s and ‘70s, speaking mainly to the working class. Gil and Caetano Veloso, partners in music for years, led the musical revolution of that era. They shook up the Brazilian scene with “cultural cannibalism,” mixing rock music with Brazilian and African styles.

Grupo Corpo in “Gil Refazendo.” Photograph by Jose Luiz Pederneiras

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s 38th president from 2019 to 2022, did as much damage to his country’s democracy in just four short years as #45 did to ours. Why should this be notable? Upper class men like him in power during the ‘60s and ‘70s felt threatened by Gil’s and Veloso’s global fusions, and in 1968, the year of uprisings in many world capitals, the duo was imprisoned and again in 1969, released only under condition they leave the country. After years of exile with their families in England, they eventually returned to Brazil and Gil entered politics on a small scale in 1987. Upon taking office of his first presidency in 2003, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva chose Gil as Brazil's new Minister of Culture.

So Gil’s service in the Cultural Ministry, overlapped with Bolsonaro’s who was in the Brazil Chamber of Deputies from 1991 to 2018. It must have been a tricky dance for Gil among such politicians. Throughout, he continued to write music and empower young people with social and educational programs he developed but went back to performing with his large family touring the world again, and leaving government in 2008.

A friend who worked for a social program In Brazil tells me that once, when she disembarked in D.C. on a flight back from Brazil in the 90s, Gil and Veloso had been on the same flight in first class. They stood, greeting people, until everyone was off the plane. It was as if they felt the need to share good wishes with everyone on board. 

All this backstory is to celebrate the renewal of life after Covid, with Lula back in office, new leaders, and Gil’s eightieth birthday, and is but a short chapter of the significant collaborations Grupo Corpo has made with other artists over the past half century. That spirit of communion and renewal floods Pedernieras’ choreography for “Gil Refazando.” 

Grupo Corpo in “Gil Refazendo.” Photograph by Jose Luiz Pederneiras

In both dances, indeed, in almost all of Rodrigo Pederneiras’ dances that I’ve seen, the dance phrases seem to intersect acrostically on vertical and horizontal planes as if creating new words or meanings. Each convergence splashes together like the upwelling of air against the downwelling of water. The syntax that emerges is overwhelming. It can look familiar, as when the men face the fourth wall, hunched shoulders dangling every sinew of their trembling bodies. Or a signature move I’ve seen in many works since the ‘90s—Nazareth, O Corpo, Benguelé and even Parabelo—a high bent-kneed kick with flexed foot executed in profile. This time making me think of someone being snidely kicked in the arse. 

This language translates from so many cultures, yet isn’t lost on us. Nevertheless, it startles our eyes and ears as if they’ve been closed. It is as complex and distinctly Brazilian as any Sunday Feijoada, Brazil's national dish.  

Freusa Zechmeister, Corpo’s resident costumer from day one, deviated from her usually colorful, unusually constructed and often startling creations. Here, she designed off-white minimal costumes in muslin-look fabrics for both dances that were not gender-defined. Were these tiny pinpricks, as if at a voodoo doll of Bolsonaro? Or was funding squeezed under his administration? Or was it just what they felt was right for the times? Paulo Pederneiras designed the spare scenography and lighting.

For “Gil Refazando” the company’s 22 radiant dancers wore large stylized smocks over short pants and bralettes. They intersected with each other in pairs, trios and larger groupings, a grainy video of a garden gradually floats across the screen backdrop. Far into the piece, one couple removed their shirts for a short duet. Agatha Faro wore knee pads as her partner flung her around while she landed on her knees, her toes pointed at invisible spots in the air. All encircled in a huddle together near the end, as the video reveals a sunflower opening in time lapse and the camera pans out to a field of sunflowers worthy of Momix’s Moses Pendelton. An ahh moment.

Grupo Corpo in “Gira.” Photograph by Jose Luiz Pederneiras

The stage for “Gira,” the more intriguing, yet sometimes baffling work, opens all in black with low watt light stands along the curtained walls. The dancers wear skirts, ruched at the hips, the men bare-chested and the women seem so as well, but eventually you see they are clad in tight sheer sleeveless tops. They emerge through these curtains or, more startingly, from chairs along the three sides where they’ve been sitting motionless, shrouded in black mesh and where they all retreat to after performing subtropical jetstream dance phrases. Once reseated they encase themselves in what look like burka. Suddenly, you feel viscerally also enmeshed in their supernatural rites.

Their heads loll from side to side as they leap across the stage. And perhaps I just didn’t notice if at first if they came out with red painted necks or if they made them up while undercover. My perception was the latter. The men skitter across the stage knees bent forward, rumps down as if they are running through a low overhead or tunnel. Here there is more violent partnering. I thought I saw a lot of traditional East African Dijboutiens dance with the vertical hopping, small jumps and skipping along on one foot to the other. But there was ballet, ronde de jambes and barrel turns, and the arms waving before them on opposite beats as they chugged forward flat footed with bent knees. And of course, many wildly spinning tours, skirts flaring in dizzying gyrations that entrance everyone along with them. To say that Grupo Corpo is breathtaking is an understatement. It is heart stopping tropicalismo.

Merilyn Jackson


Merilyn Jackson has written on dance for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996 and writes on dance, theater, food, travel and Eastern European culture and Latin American fiction for publications including the New York Times, the Warsaw Voice, the Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times, MIT’s Technology Review, Arizona Highways, Dance Magazine, Pointe and Dance Teacher, and Broad Street Review. She also writes for tanz magazin and Ballet Review. She was awarded an NEA Critics Fellowship in 2005 to Duke University and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for her novel-in-progress, Solitary Host.

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