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Dog Without Feathers

Deborah Colker
Deborah Colker Dance Company
Southbank Centre

Dog Without Feathers is Deborah Colker’s powerful, mud-splattered physical exploration of devastation through climate change. Set on the banks of the Capibaribe River in the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco, based on the poem Cão Sem Plumas by João Cabral de Melo Neto, words translate into English allowing non-Brazilian speakers to access a world of parched rivers and poverty as visualised by poet and choreographer.

A single spotlight shines on a lone dancer emerging from darkness. He is encrusted in mud, kicking up dust, flaying arms stamping in rhythmic tribal frenzy through powdery clouds as if warding off evil spirits. The image follows on from striking black and white footage of a boy swooshing through sugar cane fields, brushing a branch against crops seen magnified on a giant screen that acts as tonight’s monumental backdrop.

These are the opening moments, arguably the most arresting of the 70-minute piece, quickly setting pace and place with visceral imagery that burns deeply into the retina long after the show is over. I am reminded of the golem, the figure in Jewish mysticism, a mystical clay creature that emerges from the mire.

“The show is about things that should never be permitted. We destroy nature, children, everything that is full of life,” explains Colker, who spent time in the environment-a month in Pernambucco, in the mud. “We saw folk dances, capibaribe, the mangrove.”

Such investment pays off as we are transported into the world of the river, mirrored by the flow of performers as they weave in and out of forms crawling and writhing, crusted in dried mud and clay, wearing flesh-coloured pants lending the appearance of nudity.

Colker’s choreography raises the pulse fast and furious as 14 dancers slide between contemporary dance, classical ballet and tribal, ritualistic thumping. Dancers are practically semi-human in their execution of astounding physical movement with the ability to morph into the other; a crab, an exotic bird, a heron.

Floor patterns and ensemble moments are remarkable from the tight huddling together of dancers, creating fleshy mud-covered forms that resemble a pulsating heart (the aim is a giant whole crab), to crawling and skidding across the stage like sea creatures scaling the floor of the ocean bed.

In other moments, dancers weave in and out of formation wearing mud-caked pointe shoes, retaining all the elegance of classical movement that wouldn't look out of place in Swan Lake.

Wooden container boxes are used as props in various forms. They act as cages where dancers, like trapped beasts, are imprisoned and taken from home. Later on, the same structures are shunted around the stage as if imaginary felled trees ready for transportation. Even container boxes are on the move in this piece.

Then there is the remarkable use of Claudio Assis’s black and white film footage that merges dance in real time with film. Dancers appear on celluloid as if airdropped into the eerily stark and beautiful landscape linking movement onstage. The giant screen backdrop creates depth and space, effectively transporting us into the world of the river alongside the dancers.

Elements of Brazilian folklore and tradition infuse each section clearly marked out under titles from “Rivers and streams” to “Big crab, Dog river” and “city” yet it’s hard to hold onto such themes as the endless sequential movement bleeds from one section to another, in response to the unstoppable, pulsating rhythm. Dancers move from musical beats from samba, jonga and mangue.

Repetitive movements, and there's a lot of repetition, feels well-placed as if nothing can stop the rhythm of time and nature moving in sequential flow. It may be at times difficult to follow, yet the piece is so deeply infused with love for the choreographer’s native Brazil that its easy to submit to her world of the river and the pace of life struggling to survive within it. The movement is about heaviness, weightiness of the mud and breaking free.

Poverty and climate change are the driving force behind this surreal, arresting creation. The land is cracked and natural habitat under threat. While Colker didn’t intend the piece to be political, it can be nothing else. This may be Brazil’s story, but it's also one of devastation that has far-reaching global significance.

Rachel Nouchi