by Cristina Ramalho

“No, no, no, it’s not like that!!!” is shouted in English, so that all of the dancers, each from a different corner of the planet, understand that they’re doing something wrong. We’re in Berlin’s Komische Oper. The feisty woman, with blond hair, blue eyes, and a firm, flushed face, is as severe as a German nurse cliché and has a foreign name. But, she sounds off, in good Portuguese: “Get that camera out of here, and don’t talk to me now!” to a calm Brazilian filmmaker who is registering her every move. Like the cast, he thinks it’s better to do what she says. Deborah Colker is one tough cookie.

Brazil’s most renowned ballerina e choreographer comes off as merciless in the documentary film És Tu, Brasil, by Murilo Salles, who recorded the working style of four important Brazilians who have been successful in the arts, beyond Brazil’s borders. Besides Deborah, the movie also shows artist Tunga, musician Carlinhos Brown, and fashion designer Alexandre Herchcovitch. Salles captured each one’s particular creative manner. Obviously, the “messed up hair” Deborah adds a dash of hot chilli pepper. Salles followed her to Germany where, thanks to her international fame, she had been invited to do the choreography for She (new) and Casa (a hit in Brazil in 1999).

For the first time in her life, she directed a show with an orchestra. And in a different country, with foreign dancers, far from her own dance troupe. She had only three months to rehearse. When she can shout at will, in her own language, and in the room she uses at Rio’s Fundição Progresso, she takes at least a year and a half to rehearse new choreographies. In Berlin, everything was different and she was tearing her hair even more, anxious about getting only the best. “One day, I saw a huge poster with my picture on it, in front of the Brandenburger Tor, announcing the show. Then, I knew that it was going to be all right,” Deborah said on opening night of the documentary, in São Paulo.

This other Deborah was all smiles. She was wearing a trim suit, was made up, had her hair done, and was a bit reticent about watching herself on the screen. “Hey, I’m the only one that comes off severe like that,” she good-naturedly protested at the cocktail after the screening. She kissed Murilo Salles and her friends, and her words were sweet. Then everybody went out to celebrate at a restaurant where, more relaxed, she was more her old self. A famous theater director went over to greet her, and Deborah thanked him, but without awe. “He’s a nice guy, but he ignores me sometimes,” she whispered when he left.

She’s got the stereotypical firey spirit of those blessed with short stature, and is always on the move. Like the comic-strip Mafalda, she is curious about human landscape and is good at shooting from the lip. “There are still critics who say that what I do is gymnastics, and not ballet,” skewering detractors who say there’s not a bit of art in her compulsion to mix everyday movements with dizzying pirouettes, on the stage, to a blend of pop and classical music. Like she did in Velox (1995), when she challenged the audience’s sense of perception by having the dancers perform vertically, on an immense climbing wall. The cast rehearsed in a panicky cold sweat, and Deborah, of course, didn’t let them off easy: “Don’t come to me, saying you can’t do it,” she said.

The members of her troupe know that the theme of every day is “Mission Impossible”: when they’re not climbing, they ride a Ferris wheel, like hamsters, slide down fire poles, or nimbly dance among 90 vases – without breaking them. Even with this hardline Russian coach approach – her family tree has Russian roots – Deborah, 42, isn’t averse to having a little fun. She draws big theater crowds, most of whom haven’t the slightest idea how to do a plie. They are entertained by such works as Rota (1997) – an invitation to spend Sunday at the park, which came to her after a visit to Disneyworld. In the first section, there is a classical ballet pas-de-deux (“Nobody can say that I don’t know how to do ballet,” she rejoins). In the final scene, the cast hangs from the Ferris wheel, at a singular moment, to the music of a Strauss waltz.

Audiences also loved Casa (1999) – a peek at everyday comings and goings. Like a Buddhist who believes that there is a god in every human being, Deborah is certain that there is a Nureyev inside of us. Frying an egg, taking a bath, watching TV, slamming the door in the husband’s face – she makes ballet of everything. She was inspired by the Weimar Republic’s Bauhaus architecture but, even at that, some talking heads said that it seemed rather superficial. Then she did 4×4 (2001), a candid celebration of the beauty of art. Four choreographies matched with the works of Cildo Meireles, of the Chelpa Ferro group, of painter Victor Arruda, and of her long-time collaborator and scenographer Gringo Cardia – the creator of the spine-tingling vase scene. Could anything be more artful? As a matter of fact, yes. Deborah plays a Mozart piano sonata, on stage, to accompany two ballerinas, in a tribute to the painters Velásquez and Degas.

Her life has always been replete with art. Deborah was born to agitate, in a family that was always partying. Her mother, Annita, was a vivacious architect; her father, Adolpho, was a master-of-everything, like his daughter: violinist, maestro, and jewelry designer. Brother Flávio is a top photographer. Deborah, who isn’t a quitter, was a pianist (ten years of piano lessons) and played beach volleyball (twice called up for the Rio team), and has a psychology degree (she had been in therapy since she was 16) and has two grown children (Clara, 19, and Miguel, 17). “I chose the dance, after a period of teenage depression. It gave me back my life,” she declares.

This carioca, who has taken contemporary Brazilian dance to the world’s greatest theaters and won Britain’s prestigious Laurence Olivier Award in 2001, now wants to have some fun. Her next choreography, begun with She, over in Berlim, will deal with erotic attraction. Who knows what expressive sensual contortions she will invent? In the meantime, she’s touching up the steps of the lead dancers of the Viradouro samba club (she had choreographed the Mangueira club for three years, previously) and she’s getting ready to open her own ballet school, next year. Students needn’t be afraid. Deborah Colker is very Brazilian, and she’s so happy, right now, that she seems to be in a revue mode. Just right for shouting “Wow!”, when the curtain goes down.


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