"Insects and Acrobats Are the Same to Me," An Interview With Choreographer Deborah Colker

Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker will be offering the New York debut of her 2002 work 4 x 4 at City Center this week, from October 22 to 25. Colker, Brazil's foremost contemporary choreographer, founded her Rio-based company, Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker, in 1994. The company's six works have earned great critical acclaim—in addition to being awarded the Brazilian government's most distinguished honor for artists, she has also been the recipient of a Laurence Olivier Award, one of the most important cultural prizes in the U.K. In 2009, Colker directed the Cirque de Soleil production Ovo. A former concert pianist and volleyball player, Colker's works explore concepts of grace, restraint, and limitation, and are known for their elaborate set design and athleticism. Colker phoned in from her studio in Rio de Janeiro. We chatted, in Portuguese, about 4x4.

Later this week at New York City Center, you'll be showing 4 x 4. The piece is a four-part collaboration with four different visual artists—including Cildo Meireles, one of the most well-known contemporary artists in Brazil. How did you come to work with Meireles?

I went to see an exhibition of his in the Museum of Modern Art here in Rio. I went in, and saw these two sculptures called The Corners. I looked at them—in each, two giant, oddly shaped walls form a corner—and felt, "What an intriguing space to dance in!" There's so much illusion and imagination in this space, so much detail and difference that we could create within it. I didn't know him. I left a note for him with the security guard. He called me a few days later.

Vase space: Colker's "4 x 4"
Courtesy Cia de Dança Deborah Colker
Vase space: Colker's "4 x 4"

What makes adapting The Corners into 4 x 4 so intriguing?

Onstage, there are six tall sculptures—each of them is composed of two walls that form a corner. Each corner is a piece of a house that was destroyed: The only thing left is a corner. A corner is a piece of space—a limited, restricted space. And it is precise. It's also a space of illusion. From the front, the panels appear to be the same, but they aren't. The angles aren't equal. In one, the walls are falling inward: It's claustrophobic for the dancer to move in. Another is more free and open. One has a hole with a hand reaching into it. It's like that dream, when someone reaches into your room and grabs you in the middle of the night, without ever opening the door. There is one that is very precise—the walls are 90 degrees. The dancer must work with these details. Many times I have two dancers doing the same movement in the different spaces. Because the space is different, the result in the body is different. When I choreograph, I enter the proportions of the space. I choreograph thinking about the claustrophobia. All my works have something to do with limitation and restriction. There is limitation in the contemporary world. There are always more people, more cars, and the amount of space is always getting smaller. So you have to find a way to express yourself in these small spaces.

So you're moving a piece of art from a museum onto a dance floor. How does that change things?

When you go into a museum, you have a certain way of relating to a piece of art. You come close, you move from one side to the other. You sit in silence, with your thoughts. Everyone is quiet, observing. It's ritual time. But when you relate to an object on a stage, it's totally different. There's a determined time that you have to relate to the object. There's a beginning, middle, and end. It's dance time. A different law governs your behavior. And you can only see it from one place—that of the audience. So I'm dislocating the art object by mixing it with dance.

You were born in Rio de Janeiro, and you continue to make the city your home. Rio is one of the most violent cities in the world. I used to live there too, so I must ask whether some of that violence, feverishness, and even danger play into your intense body of work.

I don't like this violence. I am afraid of it. But it does make my work strong, and my work has personality. You must have force and a personality to relate to the violence of Rio. But Rio also gives me other things. It gives me a lot of energy. There's the energy of nature—of the sea, the mountains, and the jungle. And even energy of the street. My artistic work is not social work. But the way that I direct my company and my school—with discipline, education, precision—everything has a focus, something I want to say. And this is a response to living in a violent city, a city without laws, where everyone does what they want.

Each piece of work creates a new law. It creates a certain order, an aesthetic order. I always say that I like to subvert order. The normal order is to have dancers on a horizontal stage, with a vertical backdrop behind them. So I say: Let's flip the horizontal stage and make it vertical, and have the dancers dance on the backdrop! But to subvert an order, you must create a new order. We need laws.

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