Hundreds of millions of people watched Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker do her thing at the 2016 Rio Olympics. A good chunk of them were her dancers.
As the “movement director” of the Summer Games’ opening ceremony, Colker marshaled a force of more than 3,000 performers, who used massive props and projections to conjure up the Brazilian rainforest and its transformation into a modern-day metropolis. She’s also the woman behind Cirque du Soleil’s “OVO,” where acrobats impersonate crickets and flies by rappelling down walls and bounding across trampolines.
Her newest work, “Dog Without Feathers,” running at the Kennedy Center this week, isn’t quite as massive as those projects, but it’s just as high-concept. Performed by her 14-person modern dance troupe, Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker, “Dog Without Feathers” is based on a 1950 poem of the same name by Brazilian author João Cabral de Melo Neto. Both the poem and the dance trace the flow of the main river through the state of Pernambuco in northeast Brazil, and they both focus on the relationship between the impoverished people who live there and the richness of the natural world around them, Colker says.
“When I read the poem, it was like a punch in my stomach,” she says. “I felt like, wow, how could a poem be so strong, so precise, so definitive.”
To create the dance, Colker and her troupe spent three weeks traveling in Pernambuco, learning the dances of the indigenous people who live there and witnessing their difficult lives, Colker says.
“I met so many people that work with the sugar cane, they cut the sugar cane from sun to sun — very hard work for little money,” she says. “But at the same time, they are warriors, they sew their own costumes and they dance like kings.”
Instead of putting her dancers in elaborate costumes, Colker coats them in mud and has them dance on a mud-covered stage, to reflect the nature of the mangrove swamps that thread through the region.
“It’s like a ritual, when we cover the body with this mud,” she says. “The mud helps us to lose our reality and transport to another reality. You cannot recognize who is a man and who is a woman, and also we cannot recognize one another.”
In this depersonalized state, the dancers are better able to transform themselves right before your eyes — from humans to water to crabs, and then back into human form. The dancers also conjure up other animals such as snakes and birds, but never the poem’s titular creature, a dog.
“A dog without feathers is not a dog at all,” Colker says. “It is someone without wings, without energy, without strength.” That’s what happens when people are dispossessed of their land and disrespected by authorities, as is the case for many people who live in Pernambuco, she says. However, these people are also fierce, stubborn and powerful, and that’s why Colker’s new dance ends on a hopeful note — with slums transforming into beautiful boats that sail away to freedom.
“[This story] is not specific to these people from Brazil. It’s about refugees, immigrants, all the people with hard realities,” Colker says. “This is what I wanted to bring to the stage — their strength, not only their misery.”
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