Grupo Corpo - Sem Mim and Parabelo

The Internationally acclaimed dance company bring the fire of Brazil to the 2014 Ulster Bank Festival at Queen's

Take the fire of Brazil and the ice of Austria. Merge this extreme mix into a sublime dance performance, beautifully presented in the towering glass and steel Festspielhaus of St. Pölten in Lower Austria, and the result is a truly heady experience.

St. Pölten, the state capital, is a delicious little chocolate-box town of baroque churches, pepperpot turrets and gilded architectural confections. Cultural excellence is a way of life here. On a balmy May evening, stylishly dressed arts lovers are out en masse, many having made the two-hour trip from Vienna for a keenly anticipated premiere by one of the world’s most distinctive dance companies.

The uber-modern Festspielhaus auditorium is unmistakably European in design and atmosphere, its curved rows of seating covered in navy blue and dove grey striped deckchair-like fabric. The audience is patently out to enjoy itself in a manner that is relaxed and at ease in its impressive surroundings. As if directed to do so by an invisible conductor, the multi-lingual babble instinctively lowers to a respectful hush before the house lights fade and the curtain rises on a vast, empty, pitch-black stage.

Out of the darkness, one by one, twenty-two dancers appear, treading softly, stealthily as though emerging organically from the depths of the natural world. Their lithe, undulating shapes flow and pulsate like columns of water, their bodies providing a canvas for another art form. Freusa Zechmister’s colourful tattooed unitards are drawn and moulded onto the shape of each individual; they are inspired by images of the sea and the mesmerising effect morphs the human form into an integral part of a great ocean.

The evening’s second piece Parabelo shifts the narrative to an urban setting, where the ever-present threat of gang warfare does battle with the sultry heat of carnival and the salvation of religious devotion. The watery colours, the tattoos and limber movements of Sem Mim are here replaced by neon orange, lime and lemon lycra and fast, flashy ensemble work. The whole thing is sexy, zesty and oh-so Latino.

Grupo Corpo is a company like no other. It was founded in 1975 in a house in Belo Horizonte, the third largest city in Brazil, capital of the state of Minas Gerais and one of the host venues of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Finals. It is a family affair, which has grown into an international phenomenon.

At its core are three brothers Paulo, Rodrigo and Pedro Pederneiras and their two sisters. Artistic director Paulo designs the sets and lighting; Rodrigo is in charge of choreography; Pedro is the technical head.

Northern Ireland dance lovers will have their first opportunity to sample this compelling blend of mystery, machismo and magic when this joyous double-bill is imported to Belfast’s Grand Opera House as a headline event of the 2014 Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

Over the years, Grupo Corpo has fostered a deep sense of community and personal and political identity. Its first production Maria Maria, premiered in 1976, fearlessly captured the spirit of the country at that time in its recreation of the struggles of a poverty-stricken black Brazilian woman. It cut to the quick of a society ruled by an oppressive dictatorship and eloquently made the case for thousands of marginalised, unheard human voices.

In a quiet corner of the Festspielhaus, after the excitement of the performance has died down, Pedro Pederneiras talks about that indefinable ‘something’ that has sustained and nourished Grupo Corpo over four decades. He endorses what his brother Rodrigo refers to as “… o jeito nosso - our way …” , a palpable sense of home and family, which extends to the dancers and imbues them with a certainty of place and identity.

'We are a family company of three brothers and two sisters, all dancers,' he says. 'Where we live is very important to us. Minas Gerais is a beautiful place, very cosy, homely. People go to each other’s houses, sit at table and talk and eat together. And so it is with us, with Grupo Corpo. All decisions are taken at the table. We are a very stable company but, of course, it has changed a lot over the years. You can’t stand still.'

He maintains that much of the company’s raison d’être is to show the world the multitude of cultural shades and subtleties that make up Brazil. He describes his country as open-minded and receptive to outside forces, nowhere more vividly illustrated than in the company’s vast catalogue of musical influences, which range from Elgar, Strauss, Mozart and Villa-Lobos to Galician pipe maestro Carlos Núñez and the composer and literary theorist José Miguel Wisnik, a regular collaborator.

'We have grown our own language and choreography,' Pederneiras explains. 'Music is usually the starting point. It comes in about a year before the premiere. Rodrigo starts working with the composer and then with the dancers.

'Sem Mim is based on 13th century lyrics by a medieval composer, adapted by Carlos and José Miguel. Carlos himself plays the gaitas in certain segments of the score. You’re right, it could not be anyone else. You can clearly hear the musical sounds of the Celtic world, as well as European and African influences.

'The lyrics speak a lot of the sea, of sailors, fishermen, people who go to sea and don’t come back home. The tattoos on the costumes reflect those stories. They were drawn on the dancers’ bodies and are all different.

'Parabelo is about the city of Sao Paulo and the traditions of the countryside around it. The city is dangerous but so beautiful; there are violent gangs and wonderful artists. Rodrigo calls this his most Brazilian and regional creation. Our presentation contains images of family pictures and exvotos (votive offerings) from a church in the city, where people go to ask for grace. But it shows too how lives can be ended by a gun.'

But, for all its international success and artistic distinction, Pederneiras reiterates that Grupo Corpo is, ultimately, about its home place.

'It’s true we have a way of moving which is a little bit different. Brazil is a very mixed country, very flexible, with many different cultures. The company is all Brazilian dancers, with one from Cuba. We often allow local dancers to come and do class with us. It’s part of who we are. Music is our inspiration. Above everything, it gives us the opportunity to show the many sides to our country through a dance style which is just our own. Yes, you can call it our way, I guess.'

Grupo Corpo is at the Belfast Grand Opera House on 31 October and 1 November as part of the 2014 Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s.