The Pederneiras clan — brothers Rodrigo, Paulo, Pedro, and José Luiz and sister Miriam, founders of the Brazilian dance company Grupo Corpo — is an exuberant contradiction to Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” thesis: They are surely a happy family unlike any other.
Led by Paulo, the talented siblings established their troupe in 1975 for the most basic of reasons: They wanted to offer professional contemporary dance in their hometown of Belo Horizonte, located in southeastern Brazil. At the time — in stark contrast to the lively contemporary scene there today — the right situation didn’t exist, so they created one. The name they chose celebrates not only their familial bond, but also the collaboration of many: Grupo Corpo, “group body.”
Four of the Pederneiras brood danced with the company in its early days, and soon Rodrigo also began making dances. Now its primary choreographer, he has created 33 pieces for the company. Paulo, the only non-dancer, remains at the forefront as the group’s artistic director, as well as lighting designer and often scenic designer; José Luiz’s photography is sometimes part of that design. Pedro, meanwhile, is the group’s technical director, and Miriam is a choreographic assistant.
What began as a little family operation has grown into a successful organization that offers its staff and 21 dancers full-time employment, according to program coordinator Cláudia Ribeiro, and enjoys an international popularity that accounts for the company’s considerable yearly touring schedule.
Despite this formidable 37-year history, Grupo Corpo’s upcoming performances at the Citi Shubert Theatre will herald the troupe’s Boston debut, something that Celebrity Series of Boston staff members are thrilled to see finally happening. The company was on Gary Dunning’s radar when he took over as Celebrity Series president and executive director in the summer of 2011. Over the phone last weekend, Dunning said that the dancers “have a vibrancy that you associate with Brazilian culture, but for me they also have the ability to be extremely still onstage, so that the contrast with the energy becomes even more dramatic.”
Grupo Corpo’s aesthetic reflects the classical ballet and Graham technique that the Pederneiras family trained in as young dancers, while a strong local flavor — “the way people dance in the streets,” Rodrigo recently said by phone from the company’s offices — is a constant undercurrent. He spoke about how in Brazilian popular dances “people start the movement with their hips. There is a kind of sensuality in the movement, and this [quality] is very, very important to me.” The music is key: Rodrigo almost always sets his dances to scores by Brazilian composers, and indeed, he says the music is his starting point when making a new piece.
They are offering a dynamic and handsome program. Rodrigo has called the 1997 “Parabelo” his “most Brazilian and regional” dance. When creating it, he looked especially to the northeast region of Brazil, where “it’s a very hot area. Life is not easy, but the people move and dance in a very happy way, and the art the local artists create is always really happy.” This source of inspiration flows north to south, and into the bodies of Grupo Corpo’s dancers. “Boy, do they take joy in dancing!” Dunning said of the company before politely — but pointedly — noting that joy and art are not mutually exclusive.
Rodrigo’s “Sem Mim” (“Without Me”), from 2011, is both lively and tinted with melancholy. It takes its cues from a score by Carlos Núñes and José Miguel Wisnik, who composed original music based on 13th-century texts in which young women reminisce about their lovers who have gone to sea.
Both pieces feature infectious group sections in which phrases are built, layered, and repeated in a way that suggests a kind of physical ecstasy. The dancers’ insouciance, and those constantly swiveling, shimmying hips, can make it all look tossed off, but many little details suggest careful construction.
Longtime company costume designer Freusa Zechmeister’s costumes consist mostly of body-tracing unitards: a palette of cinnamon and gold for “Parabelo,” a canvas of tattoos for “Sem Mim.” Meanwhile Paulo’s evocative lighting designs can create the blaze of a hot sun or the cool of an ancient church interior.
While this will be the first time many Bostonians will be able to feast their eyes on Grupo Corpo, the opposite is true for many of these Brazilians. And what is Rodrigo most looking forward to? Turns out he’s a major fan of author Dennis Lehane and can’t wait to see the Boston of “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone.” Stories, by the way, that depict some very unhappy families.