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otb: bruno beltrão/grupo de rua’s h3—a review

Members of Grupo de Rua (photo by Anns V. Koiij)

By Jean Lenihan

I have been waiting all fall for the Seattle debut of Bruno Beltrão’s company, Grupo de Rua. From what I read, I expected to see dark, volcanic Brazilian street dancers performing hip-hop without the accompanying loud, rapping pulse—to thus feel time stilled and movement writ large. Though hip hop started up here in the US, I anticipated seeing it more vividly and expressively from these guys. Tough, daring freezes and suicides seemed like they’d be the perfect vernacular for the cruelly stratified, hot-bodied Brazilian city.

Well, I was pretty much totally wrong about Grupo de Rua. Instead of hip hop written in large block letters, the show is all about doodles and scribbles and half-finished shapes left hanging in the air. It explores the power of connection and the power of the body. It’s all about BEAUTY, TENDERNESS, DELICACY and REFLECTION and it is an unbelievable show. I’d go back every night if I could (seats are very scarce at this point).

There’s a central figure in the piece, a lithe young man in a soft green shirt (Danilo Pereira), who starts the show staring out at the crowd with a semi-petrified look. 

His opposite stands beyond him, a man with total massiveness and authority (Bruno Duarte). When Pereira—down front—starts to move, he jerks and twitches and his hand hangs off the end of his arm like a broken branch. Duarte is like a wall against which Pereira’s scattered, chaotic effort to express and connect finds no hold. One imagines that Duarte, in motion, will provide a soothing counterpoint, a fierce power to soothe the situation. But his subsequent gestures—though larger and bulkier—feel just as tender. With both men moving in silence, not gesturing to any musical sound, it feels like their cries go unheard by each other, and the bigger universe.

Why can’t they answer each other? In different ways, each man seems unable to resist the pressure of the air and gravity that contains them. They both launch into larger, meatier phrases, yet they continually get sideswiped into slow, plunging backbends—descending without choice, seeming as if they’re soaking up more and more weight with each second that passes.

It’s a common hip hop move to drop to the floor. But in Beltrão’s confident hands, these wrenching descents hang in the air like huge questions.  Is there some hand forcing them down to the ground? Where is their power to rise? Is it their initial heavenly gaze—just a fast gesture—the moment that makes them susceptible to this larger, unalterable sinking?

The piece is one unit—but it feels to have two distinct sections. The first half introduces the full troupe on to the stage, in ones and twos, and again and again we see scenes of physical gesture that speaks of isolation and detachment. Two bodies will be side by side for a long time, talking gestures at each other, never touching, until finally some contact will be made. Elbows link suddenly, leading to a fast clasping of hands. By the end of the first half two men are able to wrap arms around each other’s bodies. Another man is able to lay his head against his partner.

It’s as if this ability to finally merge, to yield in these one-on-one situations, is what makes it possible for the men to join together and move like a troupe. The second half is an utterly transporting hip hop ballet underscored by patterns of backwards running that loop and soar across the floor. Beltrão also introduces phrases of recognizable hip hop—drops and freezes and crabwalks—but since they first appear to us from a darkened stage, they have a more mysterious look. Their meaning isn’t immediately evident. And when the full lights come up in the second half, shining impossibly bright at times, and the men are looping together in pattern and breaking into unison partnered phrases for the first time….well, it portrays a unique, tender glory from Beltrão that lodges firmly in the heart.
Grupo de Rua is at On the Boards tonight and tomorrow night; they travel to Portland’s White Bird Uncaged next week.  

Dance writer Jean Lenihan has begun a blog. Hurray! Definitely check out her Breathlesspace. She has a shorter review + video posted there, plus this review, too, as we weren’t sure I’d have internet access this weekend.