Grupo Corpo: Fusing the Africanist Aesthetic with European Technique

I’m extremely proud of this research paper. Being able to find resonance of my experiences in Brazil within my history, theory, and literature of dance class made writing it enjoyable. Applying real world knowledge to a subject of choice and actually being enthralled by the research hasn’t naturally occurred in other research papers I’ve done in my education career, yet I feel like my first hand experience of Brazilian culture has shaped this paper into a truly enjoyable read. Let me know if you agree. Thoughts and comments always welcome.

Grupo Corpo: Fusing the Africanist Aesthetic and European Technique

            It’s the juxtaposition of the visceral, polyrhythmic style combined with the aesthetically pleasing lines and forms that draws a diverse audience into the performances of Brazilian dance company Grupo Corpo. Satisfying both those with an affliction for technical form and those who value rhythmical embodiment, Grupo Corpo clearly pursues to ride the line of perceived concert dance and Brazilian social dance. Only thirty six years old, Grupo Corpo, of the southern state of Minas Gerais, has maintained a deeply rooted investment in both their Africanist and European heritages by exploring the broad line of the two distinctly different techniques of each world. The company has “uniquely challenged the incompatibility imagined to exist between high/erudite and low/popular representations in and of Brazil” (Rosa 91). Why is this exploration of the line so important to Brazilian culture in the pursuit of their cultural definition? Because of a hegemonic social and political history, Brazilian concert dance, most explicitly the company Grupo Corpo, employs both the Africanist aesthetic and the technical European practice of ballet culminating in its own distinct genre of dance that highlights the elastic culture of Brazil.

            In order to understand the premise of Grupo Corpo’s foundation one must understand Brazil’s history and the inter-societal struggle of its diverse people. There are three main groups of people that make up Brazilian culture throughout history: the indigenous people of South America, the Portuguese who colonized Brazil in the early 1500’s, and the African Americans who entered society post-emancipation in the late 1800’s. This melting pot of culture creates a glorious struggle causing extreme tension and an identity crisis between groups concerning aesthetic indifferences of low and high culture: it pits the more natural Africanist culture against the modern Western ideals of the Portuguese. Which culture is considered “right” and how does Brazil, as a nation, evoke an air of Western power without rejecting their unavoidable and historically rich Afro-Brazilian heritage? The Afro-Brazilian culture’s facade as “low-culture” prevails throughout the many states of Brazil simply because this cultural influence on society was born of the slaves that were brought to the East coast by the Portuguese in the mid 1500’s—a view that strays not too far, if at all, from our own views in North America on “Western supremacy” and slavery. With the degradation of one’s culture comes the disregard and contempt for all cultural aspects including dance and “Art”. The racial struggle born from the hegemonic pursuit of the Portuguese is an innate part of Brazil’s history and society, and it is the distinct differences in movement aesthetics of these differing cultures which Grupo Corpo seeks to meld into a single style.

What makes Grupo Corpo so interesting is that it fuses together both worlds and highlights the linearity and form of the Western ballet (bale) practices and the Afro-Brazilian style (ginga) without asserting that one is better than the other. Ginga, as defined by Christina Rosa, is a “sinuous offbeat way of swaying the body–or parts of it—back and forth with a sensual or playful flair.” Resident choreographer and former company member Rodrigo Pederneiras “has constructed a standardized syntax, in which ballet- trained bodies are pushed to interpret movement qualities associated with Afro-Brazilian practices—and especially swaying movements—without losing or negating their bale foundation” (Rosa 76). In combining this Ginga movement with the African aesthetics we find the basis of the Afro-Brazilian movement lexicon. Brenda Dixon Gottschild’s five premises of an Africanist aesthetic include polycentricism/polyrhythm in the body, high-effect juxtaposition, embracing the conflict, ephebism, and the aesthetic of the cool, or a cool composure under a hot energy, which are each present in Pederneiras’ work but are neither overpowering nor overshadowed by the decorum of the ballet technique and Westernized form of each piece (Dixon Gottschild). Classical ballet was an import from the European courts and brought with it “an aesthetic of its own that took root as a benchmark of colonial power…” (Rosa 72). Created on the foundation of grace, civility, morality, and honor, classical ballet focuses on an erect spine, fragility and grace of women, linear dynamics, and constrained torso and limb connection exuding an elegant air; this is a lexicon vastly different from that of the Afro-Brazilian aesthetic as it focuses on undulating torsos, energetic flying appendages, allowing the athleticism and power to shine through, and celebrating the curvilinearity of women’s bodies. The early 20th century saw the acceptance of bale technique and its mainstream narratives as “the primary set of tools with which to infuse national dancers…with a Western sense of aesthetic taste, culture, and civility,” yet the post World War II era saw a revolt of the avant-garde artists who “searched for ways to translate Afro-Brazilian dance practices onto the proscenium stage” (Rosa 73). The 1970s procured a unique shift in the perception of concert dance with the existing presence of modern dance and the break from the idealistic bale. According to Daniele Reis, Brazilian dance was “a modern style, more closely related to humankind, its real problems, with themes that represented its angst and conflicts, not the romantic and fantasized aspirations of the European ballet” (Reis 9). It was during this era that Grupo Corpo was born as they took the idea of “Brazilianess in the context of concert dance” and reconstructed it to embrace all facets of Brazil’s distinct heritage (Rosa 67).

Founded in 1975 by brothers Paulo and Rodrigo Pederneiras and rooted in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, miles from the thriving, urban cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, Grupo Corpo and its founders had already begun a five year exploration of “choreographic alternatives to the typical national dance forms” (Rosa 78). As stated by Paulo Pederneiras in a New York Times article, “there were no work opportunities to be had here in Belo Horizonte…So we decided to create our own market” (Rohter). Their first piece Maria, Maria (1976), created by Argentinian choreographer Oscar Araiz, addressed the sociocultural themes connected to “Brazilian reality” as it portrays the suffrage and deprecation of women in society. By “Brazilian reality” I seek to emphasize the plight of women, the racial struggles, the political oppositions, the economical concerns, all which plague Brazil’s history despite their efforts to   create a homeostasis within their society. Like Maria, Maria, much of Grupo Corpo’s early work emphasized these struggles through the narrative.

Moving forward in their choreographic explorations, Rodrigo Pederneiras began disregarding linear narratives of Brazilian life but rather focused on musical scores of Brazilian themes and composers and highlighting the natural polyrhythmic nature of their history. Under Pederneiras’ choreographic mind, the company is “no longer invested in questioning the long-lived invisibility of blackness within Brazil’s hegemonic context of artistic production. Neither does it seek to create a literal translation of non- European practices cultivated across the country (e.g., samba school parades or Candomble dances) into the context of the concert stage” (Rosa 77). Accordng to an interview with Rodrigo Pederneiras in the documentary Grupo Corpo: Companhia de Danca, the company involves “a team effort in creating the work…the idea of the group is what matters” (Pederneiras). This egalitarian view of the company does away with the hierarchy that is seen in Westernized ballet companies; the set designer/artist Fernando Velloso is given carte blanche, the Pederneiras brothers work with different musical scores like the ones created by the Uakti group, Freusa Zechmeister, the costume designer, has her own creative interpretation of the piece and how the dancers should visibly appear, and the dancers each have a role in teaching younger students and working within the dances. This ideological switch within the company’s inner workings and the performances themselves acts as a mirror to the change they want to see within Brazilian society.

The inaugural point of this switch in ideology within the company begins with the choreography for 21 (1992), a collaboration with the creative directors and choreographers of Grupo Corpo along with the Brazilian experimental percussion ensemble Uakti. According to Rosa, “21 introduced new ways to articulate ‘national’ ideas in a concert dance,” because rather than telling the story of their epic memories the dancers were reliving the rhythm of their history by physically embodying the melody and notes of the music (81). Music and rhythm is such an inherent part of Afro-Brazilian history that the pure physicalization of the music through utilization of the Africanist aesthetics is enough to embody the memory of Afro-Brazilian culture. Lena Marie Stuart, a dance critic, recalls that, “the dancers undulate and ripple along to a cheerful musical score marked by the bright notes of a xylophone” and that the final section is “intoxicating” due to the full-out, expansive, and physical movement (Stuart). From the first step on stage the rhythm of the music is never visually lost in the choreography. Even through the fluid formation changes of groups going in and out of small phrases, the basic rhythm is still viable somewhere on stage. It is Pederneiras’ acute attention to musicality that facilitates the ginga aesthetic, yet each phrase of movement incorporates the codified technique of Western ballet. From the documentary Grupo Corpo: Companhia de Danca, we see dancers in 21 snaking their bodies through a series of undulating limbs and micro footwork when, all of the sudden, their legs are laterally rotated and the dancers are doing coupe turns into malleable battements and flexed foot hitch kicks, a staple in Pederneiras’ lexicon. It is the idea of high-effect juxtaposition of these two worlds and Pederneiras’ clear fusion of the two, which make this dance so satisfying to watch.

In review of Corpo’s 1998 piece Benguele (a term referring to a slaves longing for Africa), Rosalyn Sulcas states, “The Brazilian troupe… is remarkable for the disciplined, uniform precision of its spectacular dancing” (Sulcas). This uniformity and clarity of line and formation parallels our perceived connotations of “concert dance” yet, as Sulcas goes on to state that, “because Mr. Pederneiras consistently uses the same strategies in these pieces, these varying and often ingenious movement ideas all arrive at the same end: a slick, glossy entertainment with no content or emotional impact” (Sulcas). Yes, Pederneiras’ movement lexicon is quite unchanging as most every piece emphasizes the profile of the dancers, fast footwork with down-held arms, flexed feet hitch kicks, layouts, and a static use of repetition and timing. We see this, too, in Corpo’s piece Bach (1996) in which dancers slide down off of suspended aluminum poles and begin throwing their flexed feet back in swift attitudes and then flinging them forward in parallel battements, all in a profile frame and with down-held arms (O Corpo). In all fairness, though, the over dramatized narrative of black oppression and the emotions associated with those memories were two main choreographic strategies the Pederneirases consciously avoided. Their choreography is mostly a sensory experience of visual and aural cues that highlight the nature of their extensive culture and history.

It is a stage where both pointed feet and shaking hips reside peacefully as this dance company acts as a mediation for Brazilian culture incorporating both the Africanist aesthetics and European codified technique. Audiences continue to laud the work of the Pederneiras brothers as they produce pieces that physically make you want to move to the rhythmic music while simultaneously making you covet the seemingly flawless technique and endless malleability of their dancers. Although to some, the group’s repertory may be monotone and predictable, there is a harsh validity to the fact that this company has conquered a feat that has been a constant onus on Brazilian existence. The ability for a dance company to successfully fuse two radically different cultures on stage lends hope to the Brazilian public that social, political, and racial tension can also find symbiosis within their modern structure. The technically sound bodies of Corpo’s dancers “worked as a framing device, which valorized (and validated) the strangeness of ginga aesthetic within the context of concert dance,” and the population began to see the polycentric undulations and innate musical syncopation as a “source of pride across the nation” that resonates and thrives through the art of dance (Rosa 87).

Works Cited

Conceicao, Fernando. “Affirmative Action and the Black Movement.” Brazil Study Abroad            Class 2014. Associação Cultural Brasil-Estados Unidos (ACBEU), San Salvador. 15 June

  1. Class Lecture

                        This is my source for my knowledge and information given in paragraphs one and

two on the history of Brazil and its social construct.

Crain, Debra. “Grupo Corpo Sadler’s Wells; Dance.” The London Times 15 September

2011: 12. Print.

Gottschild, Brenda Dixon. Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance:

            Dance and Other Contexts. Westport: Praeger, 1998.

O Corpo. Dir. Thomas Grimm. Alexander Street Press, 2001. Online video, 43 min. 11

April 2015. <http://search.alexanderstreet.com.proxy.lib.ohio-state.edu/daiv/view/work/393821&gt;

Pederneiras, Rodrigo. Chor. Grupo Corpo: Companhia de Danca. Dir. Bryan Singer.

Kultur, 1996. DVD

Reis, Daniela. “Ballet Stagium e o debate sobre a danca moderna brasileira no

            Contexto socio-politico de decada de 1970.” Fenix: Revista de Historia e Estudos

Culturais 2.1(Jan.-Mar. 2005): 1-14

Rohter, Larry. “Dance; A Brazilian Company that Zigs Where Others Zag.” The New

            York Times 20 Oct 2002: 74. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 13 April 2015.

Rosa, Christina. “Performing Brasilianness through Dance: The Case of Grupo Corpo.”

Performing Brazil. Severino J. Albuquerque and Kathryn Bishop-Sanchez.

Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2015. 67-97. Print.

Stuart, Lena Marie. “Grupo Corpo.” 14 Nov 2002. CriticalDance.com. Web. 13 April

            2015.

Sulcas, Rosalyn. “Dance Review: Exotica of Brazil in Motion.” The New York Times 27

            Mar. 2008. NYTimes.com. web. 13 April 2015.

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