Perhaps more than anything else, the appearance of the Brazilian contemporary dance troupe Endanca at Dance Place this past weekend illustrated the challenge of appreciating unfamiliar cultural expressions based on premises at odds with our habitual, ingrained expectations.
It's a challenge audiences and critics in this country will face with increasing frequency in coming years, as not only foreign troupes but many domestic artists of diverse cultural upbringing deservedly claim an ever larger share of the limelight. Meeting the challenge can and should be both exciting and illuminating; it can also be fraught with difficulties of numerous sorts.
Endanca was founded a decade ago by Luis Mendonca, its artistic director and chief choreographer. The troupe, which also includes three female dancers, is in residence at the University of Brasilia, where Mendonca is a professor of performing arts. Mendonca has worked in theater, opera and television, as well as dance, and the backgrounds of the other dancers are multifaceted as well; a biographical note on one of them, Giselle Rodrigues, typically lists studies in ballet, modern, jazz, African and Spanish dance, as well as theater.
The company performed at Dance Place as part of its ongoing international exchange project, which has also recently brought us troupes from Mexico and Africa.
Dance, it is sometimes said -- as it is of other, especially nonverbal arts -- is a "universal language." But how universal is universal? As with any other language, there are potential barriers of vocabulary, syntax and sociocultural context. Seeing Endanca in action provoked a spate of questions. How representative of Brazilian dance is this group? To what extent are these dancers conversant with and possibly influenced by other dance traditions? How much of what they do is specifically Brazilian in genesis or tone? To what extent is the meaning of their dances dependent on culturally defined conventions and aesthetics that an uninformed outsider -- such as I -- may overlook or misconstrue?
All the dancers looked well trained. They moved with assurance and an obvious delight in ensemble camaraderie. They seemed too to relish the amalgam of mime, vaudeville, and realistic and stylized gesture with the generalized modern-dance idiom that prevailed in the six brief works of the program.
Beyond this, everything seemed problematical -- an insufficiency of choreographic focus, structural coherence and thematic clarity coupled to an extremely limited palette of movement.
Most troubling of all was the inscrutability of the troupe's attitude toward women, who were variously depicted as witless nerds, willing slaves of male domination or victims of merciless self-loathing. The line between satire and exploitation seemed at times perilously thin. It wasn't easy to tell whether some of the pieces were meant to be indictments of societal injustices or simply contemptuous put-downs.
In "Insetus," for example, the three apron-clad women -- Rodrigues, Cristina Moura and Eveline Gayoso -- in front of screens bearing cartoon versions of a living room, kitchen and bathroom, started stamping the floor, screeching and scrambling onto chairs and stools clutching their skirts, terrorized by what? Unseen spiders or mice? In the following "Trialogo," Mendonca (the one work in which he appeared) treated Moura and Rodrigues almost literally like dirt, rebuffing their advances, lugging them around by their ankles and, at the end, his feet planted between their supine legs, stalking around using the pair as living boots. And in the concluding "Cursum Perficio," the three women engaged themselves in a dark frenzy of self-flagellation, twisting and flapping violently, and repeatedly slapping their thighs with audible force.
These three pieces were choreographed by Mendonca. By contrast, "Duos," choreographed by Rodrigues, was more a portrait of struggle, characterized by thrusting, flopping, crawling motifs suggestive of desperation. "Trio," a joint effort by Rodrigues and Mendonca, was closer to formalized pattern dance, and used flamenco-type percussive footwork along with windmilling arms to underline its tempestuousness. The opening "Imagem Virtual," choreographed by Mendonca and Marcia Duarte, was an indistinct abstraction for Rodrigues and Moura that sacrificed continuity in its stop-go construction.
Have I, in these characterizations, revealed more to you about Endanca, or about my own limitations and presuppositions? In all candor, I don't know.