An Exclusive Chat With: Choreographer Deborah Colker

Classic Arts Features   An Exclusive Chat With: Choreographer Deborah Colker
After nearly a decade, famed Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker and her Companhia de Dança return to New York Oct. 22-25. The energetic artist recently spoke to PlaybillArts about the long overdue engagement, as well as her recent work with Cirque du Soleil.


Since founding Companhia in 1994, Colker has created nine full-length pieces for her troupe- each one taking an average of two years to meticulously plan and construct.

Born to a musical family in Rio De Janeiro, Colker began as something of a music prodigy, playing with an orchestra by the age of 14. She would go on to study piano for over a decade (a skill she will demonstrate to New York audiences in one of the evening's movements), play volleyball for a time and study psychology for six years. All of these elements - love of sports, music and overall artistry - heavily inform her work.

In the time since she last brought her Companhia to the Big Apple, Colker has found time to serve as a guest choreographer for the Berlin Ballet - Komische Oper, create a piece for the 2004 Carnival and take home the U.K.'s prestigious Olivier Award for her work on Mix in 2001.

Most notable among recent achievements, Ms. Colker has had the honor of being the first woman to create a show for Cirque du Soleil. Her Ovo, a Brazilian-dance themed journey into the world of insects, opened in Canada to great acclaim. When we spoke, it had recently been announced that the show will soon be touring the United States, including a New York engagement in May and June of 2010.

For the time being, Colker is focused on her current date with City Center. For this visit she has chosen 4 X 4 from her repertoire.

4 X 4 is a collaboration between dance and visual art. Works by Brazilian artists of different times are transformed into dance. Cantos (Corners), based on Cildo Meireles; Mesa (Table), Chelpa Ferro; Poinho (Some People), Victor Arruda; and Vasos (Vases), Gringo Cardia, are choreographies that bring images to life. The company explores the concepts of restraint, gentleness, limitation, daring, transparency and above all, clarity. Music is other vertex in the artistic love triangle formed in 4 X 4 _ the performance also offers Deborah Colker herself on the piano, interpreting a Mozart sonata, in the piece entitled Meninas.


Question: You're in Brazil right now?
Deborah Colker: I am in Brazil. I was in New York, and after that I went to Toronto. I stayed for one week because the performance that I directed for Cirque du Soleil, Ovo, is performing in there. I am very happy. I just heard that Ovo is coming to New York next May 2010! It was good because I did the premiere in Montreal, and then I went to Toronto to see their performance, and I loved it. They are amazing, it's a great dance, and the audience loved the show! I was very happy. I knew that the show would go to San Francisco, but I didn't know that it would perform in New York.

Question: How did the Cirque du Soleil job come about?
Colker: We started in 2006. I was in London with my company performing at the Barbican Center. We were performing KNOT. It's a performance about desire, desires that are possible and desires that are not possible. I was there and the vice-president of Cirque came to the show. She is right arm of [Cirque CEO] Guy Laliberte. He came to see the performance and came to talk with me. I guess it was a long time that they were trying to talk to me- they were looking for me! [Laughs.]

Question: They had their eye on working with you already, then?
Colker: Yes. I am the first woman to direct a Cirque du Soleil production in 25 years. In 2009 they are celebrating their 25th birthday.

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A scene from Ovo

Question: Cirque shows tend to be more acrobatically-inclined. Is that the case with Ovo or is it more of a dance piece?
Colker: Ovo is a performance piece. I signed on as the writer, I wrote the story, I directed and I am the choreographer. I signed on for three things in the show. Really, it's a love story. Guy asked me to do a show with a nature theme, nature and biodiversity. I chose insects as a theme. They said okay, and they liked my idea. I relate the insects with the acrobats, the way that they climb, the way that they fly, the way that they float, the way that they jump. I jumped inside the insects' walls and changed the scale. Insects are very small compared to human beings. I did the show inside the scale of the [insect world]. Inside this world is the community of insects.

There is one insect that is a foreigner. He arrives in this community inside a big egg. All of the insects are totally interested in this egg and they steal it. This foreigner is a crazy fly, and he is trying to get his egg back. During the time that he is trying to do this, he falls in love with a ladybug. She's American, a New Yorker! She's very funny. There are two stories [in Ovo], one about the egg and the love story. This is a show that has a story that everybody [can relate to]. Even a child will see Ovo and understand it. It's a community of insects and it's a love story. The egg is a metaphor for many things: hope, love, knowledge... We must never break the egg. All of the artists onstage are acrobats, and every one is a dancer. When I choreographed the show, it was not only the positions but the scenes inside the numbers. And I created some new numbers. Really, I think that this show features a lot of dance, a lot of movement. The action and movements are working together all the time. And also, there are a lot of Brazilian songs!

Question: Was the music composed ahead of time?
Colker: It's a special composition. I brought in Berna Ceppas, who works with me in my dance company. He has been working with me [for a long time], and I fought a lot to bring this guy in to compose for me. The music of Cirque du Soleil is usually within a single style. With Ovo we change completely.

Question: So it's largely Brazilian music?
Colker: Yes. Not only Brazilian, but we brought a lot of rhythms and sounds from Brazil. For example, in Ovo we have a forro dance. We have one number written from Mato Grosso, which is in the center of Brazil, a kind of dance [specific to that region]. We have samba from Rio, we have funky carioca...

Question: I know with Cirque you're not really able to develop the piece during rehearsals to the extent that you usually like to. Was that difficult, having to prepare so much ahead of time?
Colker: It was a long process. I began this process in 2006 and began the work in 2007. I worked with them for two and a half years. What I could do with them, I worked them from September until May. I had moved to Montreal from December until May as we rehearsed. I stayed for five months. Because I work with my company all the time and [was splitting my time] between the company and Cirque du Soleil, this last year I traveled to Montreal 12 times!! From Brazil! Can you believe it? [Laughs.] It was a long trip.

It's really different from my company. With my company, all of the creative process is done together- the conception, the artistic elements, etc. I'm working with the sets, with the lights, with the costumes, with the music. It's everything together. We usually spend between two years and three years to create a performance for my company. What happened with Cirque du Soleil, it was quite the same but it was different. We began at a table [working] on the intellectual conception and the aesthetic, working on the ideas. After a year and a half I went back to begin practicing. This was a huge challenge. I love to explore movement and space. Since the beginning of this process I began to think about space. Space is the residence between the dialogue and the dance. In the past I would create something on paper, build the set and then begin to dance. With my company we create and develop it together.

Question: Now, you're returning to New York with your company for the first time in almost 10 years. How did you choose 4 X 4 as the piece to present this time?
Colker: The performance that I did last time was ROTA, which means "Root." After 4 X 4 I created two more performances. I have KNOT and I have CRUEL, which is my newest one. We decided to bring 4 X 4, I think, for many reasons. It's an emblematic performance. I think it represents a lot about my vision. I think that with 4 X 4 I began to make some important changes. I've worked with space a long time, but with 4 X 4 the space is used in a different way. The spaces in 4 X 4 have a lot of metaphor and a lot of [new ways] to relate to the dance. This work we developed differently. With this work I began to make a lot of changes, especially in my conceptions- to [approach the work] not only like a choreographer but like an artist, like a director. I began to make many changes. We've traveled [the piece] a lot with the company, not only in the U.S. but also to Europe, China, Singapore, New Zealand... We have been to Kennedy Center many times, but it has taken nine years to come back to New York!

Question: You did 4 X 4 at Kennedy Center about six years ago. Do your pieces tend to change over time?
Colker: I've changed many things. [Dance] is something alive, no? Sometimes the dancers change, or sometimes I change. It's really [a lot of work]. We rehearse every day for 7 hours and 45 minutes. Every day! We do ballet class everyday; we do contemporary class most days. It's about passion. But I usually change the pieces because of the change in my dancers. Here, I changed the costumes, for example, in the third choreography of the first act. It's called Poinho. The theme is that it's a huge painting. It is so big and so colorful, so I thought that it was good, with the costumes, to have only one color. Also, there is a dance in the second act which we began with two dancers. Now we use four dancers.

Question:This is the Mozart piece?
Colker:Yes, now it's four dancers.

Question: And you will be playing the piano for that part of the performance.
Colker: That's right. I'm not a concert pianist. I am someone who studied piano as well as dance. It's very unpretentious. In 4 X 4 I relate all of the pieces, all of the choreographies, with some visual arts and space and movement. The beginning of the second act is the only moment where it's an empty stage. It's only the piano and the dancers and the simplicity of the music. Little by little, all of the dancers in the company begin to build the Vases configuration. We need to bring to the stage 90 vases. They are brought on one by one. And they need to be precise because we dance through them and around them. And then we suspend these vases from the floor and we dance under them. That's why they need to be placed so precisely on the stage, spaced exactly one meter vertically and one meter horizontally.

Question: How many members of the company are performing in this piece?
Colker: 17. It's really exciting for the dancers because it's really something that is a huge risk. It's the risk of delicacy. Nobody dies, but if one vase falls [gasps] it's a different kind of danger. [Laughs.] But everybody is breathing together.

Question: For anybody who isn't familiar with your work, would you say there is a particular theme or a message to this piece?
Colker: Really I am just fascinated with that relationship between movement and space, and I love the relation between visual arts and dance. I think that 4 X 4 is a performance about restriction and limitations. It is also about our lives living in the big cities of the world. These restrictions and limitations, this is something that we are living in these cities. More and more we have more people, more cars and less space! We need a lot of concentration. The piece is about needing to learn to work in this space and how, through creativity, we can find our way to dance inside this reality that we have to deal with.

Question: Are you working on anything new at the moment?
Colker: I've begun to create a new performance with my company. I've spent a few years working on Cirque du Soleil and liked it very much. Now I'm thinking of telling new stories. I need to grow as an artist. I like to research and develop a lot and I spend usually 2 years minimum to create a performance.

Question: Well thank you for taking the time to talk to us. We're looking forward to having you back in New York.
Colker: I just want to say this: It's taken us 9 years to come back to New York, but I hope that people did not forget us! New York is a city that is the big capital to play. I have two sensations [about performing in New York]. One is that it's a big responsibility. The other is that it's a big honor and pleasure. I'm counting the days! I'm nervous and afraid, almost like when we have a birthday and throw a party and we fear that nobody will show up! [Laughs].

Question: [Laughing.] I think you'll have no problem finding an audience here!
Colker: Good! I will sleep better today!


Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker performs at New York City Center the following times: Thursday Oct. 22 at 8 PM, Friday Oct. 23 at 8 PM, Saturday Oct. 24 at 8 PM and Sunday Oct. 25 at 3 PM. Tickets are priced at $25, $45 and $60. Visit New York City Center.

For more on Ms. Colker visit

For more on Ovo, visit Cirque du Soleil.

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