Slow Down!

Muscle Beach: Brazilians and Americans Go for the Burn

Ever since running and aerobics became popular more than 25 years ago, I've pondered whether people take them up for health alone, or to be able to outrun disaster. Endurance, speed, strength—they turn audiences on too. Brazil's Grupo Corpo could raise even a couch potato's virtual endorphins.

Choreographer Rodrigo Pederneiras's current style, recently cheered at BAM, embodies what composer-poet Arnaldo Antunes—speaking of the score he wrote for O Corpo—calls "technological primitivism." In the choreography for both O Corpo and 21, as the dancers ripple their torsos, bounce their every step, and smack the floor with their feet to percussive rhythms, you sense the African strands of Brazilian culture. But their demanding rituals function in resoundingly clear, often two-dimensional body designs—as quirkily patterned as the ones Alwin Nikolais used to create. In 21, to music by Marco Antonio Guimaraes, Pederneiras's games with numerical permutations make your eye jump; certain moves pop up now on this pair of dancers, now on those three. The 21 cast members stand still for a very long time, circling their forearms in different patterns until you think you're watching a machine whose every quirk is programmed.

If you saw the company often, you'd get to know each champion dancer. Your eye may be grabbed by, say, a particularly adept male jumper; a tall, skinny redheaded female; a little dark woman who, forming herself into a ball, is hoisted along by her partner while he, improbably, lurches along in a squat. Nonetheless, in this company, the individual body is less important than the group one. In 21 everyone wears yellow unitards, and every woman's hair is dressed à la Topsy, except at the end, when they bounce on in costumes by Freusa Zechmeister as bright as the gorgeous patchwork backdrop against which they've been doing their 40 minutes of far-from-homespun work.

Valdemir Santos in O Corpo at BAM
photo: Richard Termine
Valdemir Santos in O Corpo at BAM

O Corpo's rituals pound more relentlessly, but also foster brief bursts of virtuosity by individuals. Voices in Antunes's score bark the names of body parts and desires amid throbbing percussion, which triggers patterns in the blinking red dots of Paulo Pederneiras's backdrop. P. Pederneiras—the company's artistic and technical director—sets the piece on a red floor, against which stylishly rouched black outfits by Zechmeister and Fernando Velloso turn the dancers into spidery calligraphy. There's no mess to this high-energy corpus: Blood marches in lines; intestines straighten their kinks; the heart maintains an even beat. The evening's first diagonal comes as a shock. "I'm an addict," confessed a knowledgeable friend. I'm not at that stage. Grupo Corpo's work is witty, well made, and excellently danced, but it feels like a quick fix.


Terry Creach has a different take on human strength. In Road Work, he plunges the six men of Creach/Company into an ordeal of dancing. Within the intimate white room that is Joyce Soho, even with stanchions and "Caution" tapes fencing in their work area, we hear their breathing; their sweat is almost ours. Yet although the roar of machinery in Andy Russ's score—plus Jim Hodges and Greg Sirota's slo-mo video eroticism of jackhammers entering pavement—presages tough stuff, the link between highway crews and Creach's crew is almost paradoxical. The dance "work" is arduous, but it's also intricate, evasive, and fluid. Teamwork consists of doing the same task, but more often it involves startling ways for the men to lever one another into the air, to catch a soaring body, to fall together, to vault past flying limbs as if they were turnstiles. Maurice Fraga, Olase Freeman, Alexander Gish, Paul Matteson, Joseph Poulson, and Keith Thompson are marvels. As Creach investigates images of challenge, playfulness, competition, and support, the movement grows increasingly complex, the encounters more daring, yet the guys never lose the tenderness and complicity involved in a "job" they love.

To calm things down, Creach occasionally explores facets of dance that ally it with other physical labor. Thompson, like a helpful supervisor on his break, sits and counts aloud while Poulson dances. Gish starts to work out a solo—trying something, stopping, starting over, getting a little further with each foray into his seductive material. Thompson, Matteson, and Poulson try to make a complicated three-man drop-catch-roll work; it looks like flying havoc. The material is so rich that I start to lose track of it after about 45 minutes. But it calls me back. The men wind down into unison or double duets and simple walking, and it's over. In Road Work, virtuosity never loses its connection with daily human activity not of supermen but of these super men.


David Parsons makes a neat product. That's neither a compliment nor an insult. His work isn't commercial art; it's concert dance that aims to entertain (and does). He makes us laugh, surprises us, induces an occasional seductive chill, and sometimes gives us something to think about. But he's not into mystifying people.

His most memorable pieces, like the magical strobe-lit solo Caught (which graced all his company's Joyce programs, performed by various of his dancers) or his comical grotesquerie The Envelope, explore a single idea, wringing many variations from it. For most of his dark Union, nine dancers slowly tangle in a constantly evolving clump.

His clever-goofy new Too Many Cooks! plays off our society's increasingly weird interest in fancy food (chocolate on tuna—why not?) and with the TV chef as tempestuous celebrity. To Juan Garcia Esquivel's irreverent pastiche of old pop songs, and dressed by knockout company dancer Mia McSwain in the appropriate kitchen garb, the performers create rapid-fire images of stirring, chopping, tasting, and so on. (Brian McGinnis is especially terrific.) Their activities easily get lascivious: The orange you squeeze may be someone's buttock, and "food chain" acquires new meanings. Forget sanitation. Oddly, in Tango Oficina, Parsons never quite makes the point that he implies. Two office workers, Elizabeth Koeppen and Marty Lawson, gradually shed some of their tailored clothes as Astor Piazzola's music gets under their skin, then at the last minute seem not only exhausted but aging.

Prudently, Parsons not only rotates dancers in many works, he encourages choreography from company members. Katarzyna Skarpetowska—splendid in alum Robert Battle's solo bout of body loquacity, Takademe—choreographed Stand Back, a dance of strength for three women (in ruffled skirts by McSwain) and three men. Set to music by Nandor Weisz, the piece has a relentless go-go-go energy, but Skarpetowska shows a talent for crafting clearly shaped designs. Even more wisely, Parsons has adopted Lila York's Gloria. Like him, York danced in Paul Taylor's company, and in this vibrant piece to Poulenc's impassioned church music, she reveals a Taylor-esque appetite for buoyancy and odd, hunched shapes. A group of devotees in summer clothes by A. Christina Giannini frame dramatic episodes for a tormented sinner (Marty Lawson) and an angelic woman (Koeppen) wearing a long gown and a 1940s hairstyle, who drifts in offering succor and is borne aloft like the Virgin's statue in a religious procession. An intriguing addition to Parsons's tasting menu.

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