The northeast of Brazil is a land rich in myth and folklore. It also suffers dire poverty and is experiencing the harsh realities of climate change. The Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker, the Southbank’s new artist in residence, takes the northeastern region of Pernambuco as the inspiration for her latest work, and finds her way into that world through the poem O cão sem plumas (The Dog Without Feathers) by João Cabral de Melo Neto in 1950.
Cabral used the Capibaribe river that traverses the region as a way to describe the land and its people; from this, Colker creates eight scenes that move us from dry riverbed, to burning sugarcane field, to mangrove swamp, to Recife’s waterside favelas on stilts. We’re immersed in these scenes thanks to the extraordinary films, projected on to the back screen, of Pernambuco natives and of Colker’s dancers in situ, plastered in dried mud and captured in epic black and white by the film-maker Claudio Assis.
Caught in extreme close-up, they look like models on a fashion shoot; in wide shot – filmed rolling their bodies slowly across the cracked earth of a parched riverbed, for instance, or poised motionless in a gnarled tree – the images have the grandeur of a Sebastião Salgado project. It’s hard to tear your eyes away – which means the live dance element rather loses out.
Here, the 14 dancers – equally mud- and dust-caked – adopt folk dance and animal-like movements; looking as if they have risen out of the earth, they also seem pulled down to it, crouching, hunching, rolling and scuttling on the stage floor. Sometimes they come together as a single synchronised entity, sometimes they are caught in grappling duets. Lithe and acrobatic, and with huge reserves of strength, they work tirelessly to create a seething energy on stage with minimal props.
Three of the women, caked in white, occasionally stalk on pointe among them with classical poise – herons, the programme notes tell us, but also the region’s white elite that ignore the poverty. Without being explicitly told, I’m not sure I would have guessed that was what was going on, and the same is true for much of the rest of the show. There’s an urgency and sincerity – and an underlying shout of anger – in Colker’s work, but it’s hard to find your way in to what is exercising her. However, it’s undeniably beautiful to look at.