You don’t conventionally associate Portuguese culture with the rough and tumble, fury and passion of contemporary dance and its smashing of aesthetic precepts and reinventing of new possibilities. This astonishing paean to the land by CDCE, a dance company supported by the government of Portugal presents not only a fresh spin on a society that doesn’t often rise to cultural prominence but also a restored understanding of how folklorish values and hard-hitting contemporary energy can mesh.
A group of traditionally dressed men and women chant and heave in Portuguese, in an astonishing bit of filmography which fills the hollow space of the UJ auditorium and reverberates in your head, with its colour and density. You may not be able to access the poem they recite or the meaning of its contents, but you are swept away by the inward-looking earnestness of their presence. It feels like you are in the presence of a religious ritual of great and terrible moment.
And then you realise it all rests on the sand.
The work is premised on a thick layer of soft sand which resonates and absorbs the light to become a matter almost transcendent. It is as though the sand is a sixth dancer in terms of how it rumbles and splashes, how it hides dancers and exposes them, how it is black with shadow and impenetrably gold, or pink or blue, lending tone and texture to this extraordinary piece.
The sand consumes you and fixates you but the dancers absolutely mesmerise. It doesn’t feel legal or possible, actually, to be able to move one’s body or that of another dancer as though it were a disarticulated doll or a dead body. These unbelievable performers under the hand and eye of fellow performer and the piece’s choreographer, Nélia Pinheiro, defy the way in which their bodies were made as they cock a snook at the very principles of gravity. It’s dancing that utterly takes your breath away.
But blending the deep rich melody of traditional music with the white noise that is an unfortunate trend in contemporary dance, is sadly, a factor that bruises this otherwise close to perfect bit of work. The numbing absence of music, replaced by the ugly technological buzz emphasises an element of monotony to this piece – and while the movement is so big and wild and frenetic, against the backdrop of this techno-buzz, it becomes soporific.
But you have to maintain your focus: armed with a couple of chairs, a watermelon, a table and a watering can, these six dancers define what it is to make passionate love to the land. Phrased around dissonance and opposites, this is a muscular and convincing piece of dance. A privilege to experience, and easily the pinnacle of this year’s Dance Umbrella, so far.
- Terra Chã is choreographed by Nélia Pinheiro and designed by Ólafur Arnalds (music score); Modas de Cante Alentejano (sounds); Gonçalo Andrade (soundtrack); José António Tenente (costumes); and Paulo Graça (lighting). It is performed by Gonçalo Andrade, Fábio Blanco, Nélia Pinheiro, Constança Sierra Couto and Ivanoel Tavares of the CDCE dance company from Portugal. It performed at the UJ Theatre in Auckland Park, on March 1 and 2, as part of Dance Umbrella 2016. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za