The Brazilian contemporary dance choreographer is fascinated by movement and the kernels of ideas, narrative and sometimes mystery that lie within both movement and the new universes that each new dance may create.
But for 4 X 4, which will be presented by her Companhia de Dança at New York City Center in a rare New York appearance, from October 22 to 25, Ms. Colker took on the integration of contemporary dance with the visual arts, attempting a dialogue between them. (Ms. Colker laughs when told of Cunningham, who once bemusedly observed that dance itself is after all a visual art.)
Her interest in those qualities, and in particular in the melding of art and dance, colors 4 X 4 from the start, in separate universes created by four Brazilian artists that open out from a constricted, lonely world of corners to a slow-moving table and on, in the last of five vignettes, to a stage filled with dancers hurtling across a kind of chessboard studded with porcelain vases.
The childlike scatology of the fairytale characters in Poinho (Some People), a third section that takes place in a huge, bright painted backdrop by Victor Arruda, probably have more to do with Ms. Colker's background in psychology than purely aesthetic concerns.
Rio de Janeiro, where her company and school are based, may have lost a first-rate, slyly observant clinician when Ms. Colker gave up advanced study in psychology to return to dance, an early love that vied with competition volleyball and piano studies. With a violinist and conductor for a father, music was perhaps inevitable. (Ms. Colker will play the Mozart Sonata in A Major live for a Degas-inspired duet in 4 X 4. "I always wanted to have live music on stage," she said. But the costs of maintaining a company of seventeen dancers make that impossible. "So, OK, I will play myself," she added, laughing.)
But it was dance that merged and synthesized the physical and intellectual pleasures of sports and music. "Now I understand that dance joined in my life the energy that I used when I was doing sports, and the music that I always study, and also psychology," Ms. Colker said in a recent interview. "It was the way I found to express myself, to communicate with the world."
Not long after she returned to studies: in ballet, contemporary dance, jazz and step-dancing: she joined the influential and liberating Grupo Coringa, directed by Graciela Figueiroa, a Twyla Tharp dancer in the 1960s, and started to teach dance. Not strictly a professional troupe, Coringa was open to anyone who wanted to dance, no matter the physique or level of experience, and looked, to one observer, like "a band of bats following a wild mare."
Four years later, in 1984, Ms. Colker began to concentrate on creating her own contemporary dance works and choreography for all manner of other stages. By 1994, she was ready to form her own troupe, which now tours through-out Europe and has made her work so internationally familiar that she was invited to choreograph for the Berlin Ballet, and direct and choreograph a recent piece for Cirque du Soleil, as well as winning the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award in 2001 for her Mix. But she works slowly, she says, having made only nine pieces for her company since its founding.
Classical ballet took root in Brazil in the 1930s, with homegrown contemporary dance emerging in the 1970s. Today, the Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker is one of the leading Brazilian contemporary dance troupes, whose work is based not in Brazilian folk forms like the irrepressible samba and the upside-down capoeira but in ballet and contemporary dance techniques, high- technology tap and gymnastics.
Ms. Colker also draws on everyday movement for her dances, though the classical ballet technique, she says, is at the heart of her work and her dancers' training.
Her heroes are Mr. Cunningham and Ms. Bausch, both of whom died this year. And there was one more. "Horrible," she said. "It began with Michael Jackson. I really love him. Immediately after him it was Pina Bausch, then immediately after her it was Merce Cunningham. I said, 'Wow, come on. I will lose all my idols.' "
Her chance viewing of a 1999 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum of paintings by Francesco Clemente, whose figurative work addresses body, gesture and myth, seems to have been life-changing. Architecture has been important to her, too, in particular the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Bauhaus notions of space and how to share and organize it.
But she returns to Mr. Cunningham and his influence, particularly on her 1995 Velox, "spectacular choreography" that was a piece about questions, some having to do with verticals in a horizontal world. "I'm still the daughter of Merce Cunningham," she said. "He is still my father." The last hundred years of modern art examined "how art can make questions about art," Ms. Colker said. "How inside one work you find answers but also ques- tions that you cannot answer. And you want to share with the audience. So everybody thinks together." Should even the mysteries be shared? "Yes. That's nice."
Read an exclusive PlaybillArts interview with Ms. Colker here.
For tickets to Companhia de Dança visit New York City Center.
Jennifer Dunning wrote about dance for The New York Times and is the author of books on the School of American Ballet, Alvin Ailey and Geoffrey Holder.