Deborah Colker is an acclaimed Brazilian theatre director, dancer and choreographer who established her own dance company in 1994 in her home city of Rio. A recipient of the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance for her 2001 show Mix, Colker wrote and directed the Cirque du Soleil production Ovo, and in 2016 choreographed the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games.
In May this year Colker returns to the London for the first time in seven years as she brings her latest work, the acclaimed Dog Without Feathers to Southbank Centre. Ahead of this much anticipated performance Colker kindly took time out from her pre-tour schedule to speak with us about her latest work, the inspiration behind it and its meticulous preparation.
Growing up in Brazil you played the piano and volleyball, was dance a natural way in which to marry your interests of music and the collective movement of sport?
My father was an orchestra conductor and violinist, so when I was born, I already had a piano in my house and a father who would take me constantly me to concerts, operas and ballet. I started studying music at age six and piano at eight – I've always read music scores very easily – and I performed in concerts and music contests. I started playing volleyball when I was 11 and always found fascinating the collective strength, the energy and the constant challenge. I believe that dance is the form of art that brings together this energy, the collective power, and associate it with the artistic, loneliness, creativity of a piano. Dance has united sports and music.
You have had opportunities to bring the mediums of dance and sport together in the years since, most notably as Director of Movement for the 2016 Rio Olympics. What was that experience like?
As the Director of Movement for the Rio Olympics I could, through dance, tell the story of a country, a culture; mixing gestures and dances expressions to translate into movements the personality of my city. A city that love being outdoors, loves to play, loves gatherings and mixing different cultures. I had to search and discover these gestures, this movement, that could translate Rio de Janeiro and Brazil to dance
Of course the theme for the Olympic Games is sport, and with that I already had a great connection for a long time in my own work. I took to the Olympics rehearsals what I had done in shows such as Velox (using a climbing wall), and Rota (using large wheels), which questioned the gravity and the physics of the movement. It was the most fascinating experience to work with 6,000 volunteers, 120 professionals and 15 assistants to set up this Olympic odyssey.
It’s twenty years since your company first performed in London, and you have performed here many times since. Do you look forward to returning to the city? Do you notice a difference in how London audiences react to your shows?
I've missed bringing my work to London. The last time I was here was 2012 with Tatyana and I regret that I did not bring Belle (an adaptation of the French-Argentine writer Joseph Kessel's La Belle du Jour) to London. I am extremely happy and very anxious to bring to London this latest work, Dog Without Feathers, which is based on a poem about the human and universal issues we experience in Brazil, and also drawn from my own take on what is unacceptable and inconceivable in this world. I know that London audiences want to see original, new and extraordinary pieces, and I think the show delivers that.
As you mention, your latest work, Dog Without Feathers, was inspired by poet João Cabral de Melo Neto’s 'Cão sem Plumas'. What was it that drew you to this particular poem, and led you to evolve a performance piece from it?
This poem is a powerful punch in the stomach! The author talks about tragedy and exuberance, about dry lands and skies, and talks in particular about the Capibaribe River in Northeast Brazil. But it's actually speaking about all the rivers, about the riverbanks and all the excluded people that live by the rivers for survival. It speaks of people who are deceived, crushed, and have all they own taken from them. These people are actually warriors, who never give up in their land, the skies, the river who provides a living. Dog Without Feathers is universal and timeless.
How do you get your performers to bring the essence of such a diverse country as Brazil to life through dance? Is it a difficult challenge?
I sought to build the performer’s gesture as ‘crabs’, they are very traditional animals from the mangroves of Capibaribe river. Dancers are half animal-half men. I tried to find every word of João Cabral's poem in their bodies and movements. I had to find the right gesture that would really translate that poem into dance. As the poem speaks of a river, I also had to try and dissolve the body of the dancers, which is solid, into liquid. The way I found to express that was blending dance, poetry, music and cinema.
Dog Without Feathers is performed alongside a spectacular film by Cláudio Assis. What comes first in the creative process; the film? Or the on-stage choreography? Or do you formulate the two together?
First we’ve created the gestures, the movements, the dance script, the show script. For two years Claudio and I talked and discussed what was essential in the poem. He went to most of the rehearsals. We’ve started this creative process in July 2014. In 2016, we did a three-week residency in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, where we filmed in six cities, gave workshops, performed in public squares and shared experiences with the people of these cities (workers, popular artists, dancers, poets, and more). We left this residency filled with enough raw material to complete Dog Without Feathers, it took us a long time to bring the film and the stage performance together. The stage invades the film, and the film invades the stage.
Is the work Dog Without Feathers how you envisaged it to be from the start? Or has it evolved at all during its conception, choreography and performance?
It was very an extremely difficult process leaving those thick, precise words that were on the poem. It was a search filled with experimentations. I have been building this crab-man, this man crushed yet powerful man, this new skin, this new body. During this process we found this symbiosis: dance, music, word and film. We’ve developed a very intimate relationship with the music composers, parts of the poem that would be sung or spoken, the possible scenographic space and how to relate this to this giant film screen, and especially how to dress the ‘skin’, the body of this man-crab. We came to the conclusion that everything was mud.