Review: Grupo Corpo’s NAC performance proves that music matters

A scene from Bach by Grupo Corpo. Photo: José Luiz Pederneiras

Grupo Corpo, the exuberant, wildly innovative Brazilian contemporary dance company, presented a sold-out double bill at Southam Hall on Saturday. The performance offered a case study on the importance of score selection, and how mediocre music can spoil an otherwise great work.

Rodrigo Pederneiras choreographed both pieces on the program. First came Bach, from 1996, set to Marco Antonio Guimaraes’s mashup of Bach’s greatest hits: repeated, synthesized snippets of keyboard works, chorales, and cello suites laid over a clanging, pulsing rhythm track. It’s all a little too Switched-on-Bach–dumbed down, commercial, stripped of dignity and soul.

Bach’s music is already so steeped in dance, its counterpoint so intricate and gestural, that it’s baffling why Pederneiras commissioned these unsophisticated arrangements rather than simply use the source material. The choreography itself is inventive, intimate, seductive, bursting at the seams with Pederneiras’ signatures: loose swinging arms and provocative, sashaying hips; lighting fast footwork, turns, and changes of direction; explosive leaps and hops;  dynamic contrast between ballet and popular or folk idioms, and the physics-defying aerial work (the dancers climb and pose on poles that look vaguely like organ pipes hung from the ceiling).

In one scene, only the bass line of the “Air” from the Orchestral Suite no. 3 is heard; the dancers visually fill in the missing melody and counterpoint. It’s a rare instance of the music complementing the movement, and it makes you wish the rest of the score had been as thoughtful.

What a difference in Pederneiras’ newer work, 2017’s Gira. Inspired by Afro-Brazilian religious rituals, Gira is carnal, raw and more than a little dangerous. Both men and women wear voluminous white skirts, with bare torsos and collars of red paint around their necks. The set looks like it could be a vast storeroom or the hold of a ship: dimly lit with small orange torches glowing against black walls, and moonlight filtering through open gridwork above, catching on the sweat of the bodies. The dancers who are not performing at a given time sit around the edges and drape themselves with the same dark fabric that covers the walls, so they melt into the shadows and reappear as if summoned from another plane.

For this work, the Sao Paulo-based fusion band Meta Meta cobbled together a gritty, tasty score that blends African and Indigenous chanting and drumming with everything from latin jazz to electronica. The beats are irresistibly groovy, the mix inspired, and the whole thing sounds like something you’d either hear in an ancient temple or at the hottest street party in Salvador. If  Bach’s score takes away from the dance, Gira’s gives it its heartbeat.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.