"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.
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.
I'll never forget the piece you're talking about, Velox, from 2006. The dancers are suspended on a vertical plane the entire time. The dance for an hour, without ever touching the floor. The plane looks like a giant peg board—some kind of board game. You used to be a volleyball player. Do you get your inspiration from sports?
Sports gave me energy and physical discipline. Sports are a competition. You play to win. Art is different. Art is discovery. You have to feel and to contemplate. But the idea of wanting to conquer obstacles—sports gave me the discipline for that.
You recently directed a Cirque de Soleil production, which is now being showcased in Toronto. What was it like to choreograph for a circus? Obviously, it's quite different from contemporary dance.
The circus was incredible. It's marvelous. Cirque de Soleil is not just a circus. It's the world's circus. The people who work there are from all over the world. I worked with artists from Russia, from Brazil, from Japan. They were all circus artists, but it was a mix of languages: of dance, circus, and of theater. The name of the show is Ovo—egg. The director originally wanted me to do something about biodiversity and nature. So I chose the insect world. I felt like insects have a fascinating relationship with acrobatics. Insects and acrobats are the same to me. They can walk on the ceiling, on the floor, they can jump, do everything.
You were the first Brazilian artist to win Britain's Laurence Olivier Award. Do you feel that sometimes you're showcasing Brazil to the outside world? Do you feel a certain responsibility because of that?
I feel a great responsibility to represent Brazil. A lot of people arrive in Brazil and think they've arrived in the Third World. The world that doesn't do the right things, that has no order, no education, that just copies from the outside. As everyone says, Brazil is the country of beautiful women, of the mulatta, of the beach, of Carnival. But we also have electronic music, jazz, blues. We also have a contemporary dance. People think of Brazilian dance as samba and capoeira. I do contemporary dance. I have a strong, classical technique. I'm showing Brazil as we do it. As we want. Not as they see us.
In the final part of 4 x 4, 90 ceramic vases, created by a Rio-based artist collective, Gringo Cardia, are placed throughout the stage. Is that also a purposeful limitation?
Each vase is one meter apart, so it's a very restricted space. It's a new law: They have to dance without breaking the vases. Yet they must still dance with purity, fluidity, intensity. They must spin and jump—do everything. In each new space, the ballerina discovers a new body, a new dance. With every new question that is proposed, you are forced to encounter an answer. It's like life. There's also a magnet inside every vase, and, at the last moment, magnetic lines that come down from the ceiling catch the vases and suspend them, and we dance below the vases. So it's all about how you can relate to the same object in different ways.
One dance in 4 x 4 involves dancers moving in front of a giant, cartoonish painting by the artist Victor Arruda. It's full of body parts. It's very strange. What were you thinking about?
This painting is about holes. The mouth hole. The armpit hole. The belly. My idea here was: How does a child or an adolescent discover her body? Like, when the breasts begin to grow, or the butt, or the hairs begin to grow and change. How does the child begin to see her body growing, becoming a sensual body, a body that desires. A body with personality. But we also play in this child space. You know—how a child will put her hand in her nose, pull out a booger, and then put it in her mouth. There's the curiosity of the child when the body begins to change and grows.
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