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Deborah Colker: The Olympian Choreographer of Brazil

Rio Olympics’ Movement Director and Choreographer Debora Colker is an all-genre, innovative movement expert who can maneuver masses of performers with precision and intention.  She embraces indigenous dancing, samba, modern dance, acrobatics, parkour, and anything that concerns the kinetic expression of a moving body. As the Rio Olympics were coming to a conclusion, Deborah sat down for a one-on-one conversation with ICONS. She shared her experience working on the Olympics, her creative process, and her philosophy; she also offered her wisdom and advice to the new generation of choreographers.


Dance ICONS: How would you describe your experience and challenges as Movement Director for the Olympics opening ceremony?


Deborah Colker: It was difficult, but it didn’t surprise me because it was not the first time I worked on a big scale. I liked the experience; however, it was a great challenge because of the politics and protocols. I was one of the directors, and the only movement director, so it was in my hands to construct all the scenes until the athletes’ parade. I built on my previous work and proposed new challenges. For example, we rehearsed in the Amazon and were inspired by indigenous thatched houses from Mato Grosso State.  Late during our work on the Olympics, we developed the weaving elastics scene based on our experiences in the rainforest.


In total, I worked for a year and a half on the Olympics: first, I held many auditions to form my team of 15 assistants and 114 professionals.  Then we did five workshops and began two and a half months of weekend rehearsals with my team and the volunteers. We rehearsed with anywhere from 100 to 2000 people. I had never worked with volunteers until the Olympics! They’re passionate, interested and talented; however, their commitment is different than professional dancers’ commitment -- we could not control their presence all the time.


DI: Simultaneously with your work on the Olympics, you were producing VeRo. Why remount two earlier works as a single show at this time?


DC: Two years ago, before I was involved in the Olympics, I was talking to João Elias Alvares da Silva, Executive Director of Deborah Colker Dance Company. During the Olympics in Rio, he suggested that we present both Velox (1995) and Rota (1997).  Velox involves sports and evokes the Olympic spirit; Rota is a strong and important performance in our repertoire that we hadn’t presented in a long time.


A friend who used to work with us suggested we combine them.  We thought it wouldn’t be possible technically. How would we move the wall and bring in the wheel and six ladders? How could 14 dancers be prepared to present two different challenging techniques? But we love challenges, so João and I agreed we had to try! The process was very different from new creation. When remaking a show, you teach people and share experiences that you had before with an openness to the new dancers. I make changes and let them participate in the process to bring new life and breath to the work.


DI: How would you describe your evolution as a choreographer?


DC: When I began my dance company in 1993 in Rio, and in Brazil more broadly, dance audiences only wanted to see classical and contemporary dance. I thought, “Come on, guys. It’s too boring to have a dance company comprised only of dancers!” My company brought together actors and fashion models with street, classical and contemporary dancers. This was 23 years ago, when I did Vulcão (1994) and continued through Velox and Rota.


Then I began to change. More and more I needed dance professionals.  I wanted more from dance, bringing together classical and contemporary techniques. We did extra performances until I decided I wanted to work with stories.  That’s when I did Tatyana (2011) and Belle (2014). I continue to need dancers because I love technique and the amazing things their bodies can do that allow me to push the limits in my investigation of movement in space!


DI: Tell us about your next project and what makes it uniquely Brazilian.


DC: While directing the Olympics and VeRo, I have also been creating a new performance, Cão sem Plumas or Dog Without Feathers that will premiere in July 2017. It’s based on a beautiful poem by the father of Brazilian poets, João Cabral de Melo Neto. Cão sem Plumas is more like Tatyana because it doesn’t have characters. It’s about the Caipibaribi River in Pernambuco State, an important cultural birthplace of Brazilian writers, dancers and musicians.


Cão sem Plumas is totally Brazilian.  It conveys the soul of Brazil from the rich and miserable to the mud and mangroves. But I don’t believe that there is such a thing as uniquely Brazilian contemporary dance; I know lots of Brazilian choreographers whose references are primarily European or American. It depends on how much each person is influenced by our culture.


DI: How have other forms of movement and art influenced your work? 


DC:  My influences are distinct dancers and artists from Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson to Prince. This year, I lost one the huge influences in my life, David Bowie.  I’m inspired by movies, TV, games and writers.  When I did Tatyana, I adapted the 19th-century book Orange by the amazing Russian writer, Alexander Pushkin.


 It’s more a life story than a love story -- about choice and the moment you realize that you’re in love; how love is the most important thing in life, which can transform everything. It’s bigger than a duet. It was then I understood how much poetry and dance are related. They’re both abstract, full of metaphors and verses.  It’s a different kind of dramaturgy than narrative; it’s about creating an atmosphere, a scene, a texture full of meaning and feeling.


DI: What can you share about your creative process? 


DC: The most important thing about my process is that I am revising my process all the time. Each performance is a system that I need to create and develop, so experimentation is key. Daily rehearsals are very important to me. As Miles Davis used to say, musicians are playing with a gun and only have one bullet, so you need to be precise when you play. You need to be precise when you dance, when you think, when you choose— you only have one chance.  For me, each day is like that. 


The process of experimentation in my last creation, Belle from the book Joseph Castle’s Belle du Jour, was totally different from my current process. Over the past year and an half, I had to shrink my company from 17 to 14 because of the economic crisis in Brazil. I have been completely inside the Brazilian situation, living it in my blood and my breath, which helped me get through my 14-hour work days. Everything was related: my thoughts, creativity and inspirations were crossing paths all the time. I brought VeRo’s walls and wheels into the Olympics; the Ceremony’s maracatu scene is from the same place in the northeast as João Cabral de Melo Neto; and I’m further developing the elastics with my company for Cão Sem Plumas.


DI: What would the Deborah of today advise the Deborah of fifteen years ago? 


DC: The importance of simplicity. The importance both of developing an idea deeply and of timing. You should research what you put in front of yourself.  Go deep inside the poem, for example. But you also need to attend to the dynamics of the performance on stage. And the more technique your dancers have, the more freedom you have. Freedom with your thoughts, freedom to create. 


It’s like cooking -- if you have onion, garlic, butter, cheese, vegetables, rice and meat, you will have more possibilities of mixing, using or excluding them. More and more, I think technique is really important. But what kind of technique? When you find a dancer with good classical technique, it is much easier for him to move from one style to another one than the opposite. Experience has taught me that classical training is more systematic, detailed and structured.  So today, 80% of my company comes from a strong classical background. My ladies are amazing in pointe shoes, and they’re ready to climb the wall and perform on the wheel! Experience, courage and simplicity are what set us free.







Born in Rio de Janeiro, Deborah grew up studying classical piano and playing volleyball. Her serious commitment to dance came when she was 16 years old.  Deborah founded her dance company, Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker, in 1994.  It became hugely successful the following year with Velox, which within six months attracted 55,000 spectators.  Velox required dancers to scale walls as if they were rock climbers competing in X Games. 


Deborah has questioned why the stage must always be horizontal and the dancer vertical.  An early example is seen in Rota, where dancers perform in a large spinning wheel.  In Cruel, dancers travel through three revolving mirrors with portholes. In another piece, 4X4, dancers must navigate around 90 porcelain vases arranged in a chessboard pattern. 


Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker has toured four continents, performing on some of the most important stages in the world.  In addition to Velox and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, her company’s productions include Vulcão (1994), Mix (1996), Rota (1997), Casa (1999), 4 Por 4 (2002), (2005), Dínamo (2006), Cruel (2008), Tatyana (2011), and Belle (2014).


Deborah assumed the lasting title of “Director of Movement” in 1984 to underscore her major contribution to dozens of theatrical productions during this period. She earned the distinction of being the first Brazilian to win the Society of London Theatre’s prestigious Laurence Olivier Award in 2001 for “Outstanding Achievement in Dance” for Velox.  In 2009, Deborah became the first woman to choreograph a Cirque du Soleil show – Ovo -- an intriguing voyage into the world of insects. 


*Deborah Colker is Honorary Member of the Choreographers Advisory Board of the International Consortium for Advancement in Choreography, aka Dance ICONS – The Global Network for Choreographers, an organization based in Washington, DC, USA.


Pictured: Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker

Photography: Leva Aversa, Flavio Colker

Interview by Althea Skinner, ICONS Global Representative in Brazil

Content Editor Camilla Acquista

© ICONS Inspire, August – September 2016