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Dancing in the street

A Unicamp dance company employs games and improvisation in its public space performances

Scenes from a performance of Suportar...

Public domain imagesScenes from a performance of SuportarPublic domain images

In 1989, after eight years working as a ballerina and choreographer in Sweden and as a dancer with established companies in the U.S., Holly Carvell left for Brazil on a visiting Fulbright research scholarship to the Department of Performing Arts of the Arts Institute of the University of Campinas (IA-Unicamp) to find an environment that she now describes as “brutal.”  Carvell noticed in Brazil a lack of continuity between educational practices and activities outside the university.  Her own work became, to a large extent, an effort to bridge this divide.

Rising from visiting (from 1989 to 1998) to full professor at the university, where she has been head of the Department of Performing Arts since 2012, Carvell never severed her ties with Unicamp.  During her first few years, Carvell discovered, when meeting with students, that she could apply the methods she had developed abroad and, rather than seek homogeneity, tap into the unique background and technical qualities of each individual for the key elements of the dance piece she was composing.

“I never intended to have a conventional company,” says Carvell.  “In the beginning of the 1990s, I began trying out games and improvisations with a group of dancers and it started to work out.”  Before these exercises, the choreographer usually suggests theme-based readings and visual material to the group.  “Often, the conversation takes other directions, or new suggestions come up for us to try out in subsequent meetings,” she explains.

...where dancers draw on their own experiences

Public domain images…where dancers draw on their own experiencesPublic domain images

The experiments reached a public beyond Unicamp in ongoing fashion in 1995, with the birth of the Domínio Público Company, composed of undergraduate and graduate students from the performing arts department but with no formal ties to the university.  For approximately 10 years, the 11-member cast has been together, performing, creating and collaborating on new projects.  Calculating the budget, writing, and thinking about new costume designs, for example, are all examples of shared tasks.  “It’s a very heterogeneous group,” says Carvell.  “In common, each one finds his own tools to be an individual dancer and creator.”

When directing a performance, Carvell prefers to work with a suggested roadmap rather than choreographed, movement-to-movement sequences.  “This allows for real-time intervention and invention—even welcome accidents—things that happen unplanned but that bring out an organic quality,” she explains.  The group’s performances (in which the art that is put into practice reflects learning through research) including Suportar (Endure) from 2013 and Posso dançar para você?  (Can I dance for you?)  from 2012, take place in the public squares, streets, bus terminals and other open-air venues.

Carvell, born in New York in 1955, grew up in a household that cultivated a taste in art, including dance.  Her father, Otis Carvell, was a filmmaker and attended Black Mountain College, which, throughout its 24-year existence from 1933 to 1957, focused primarily on the arts.  There, he studied under Alwin Nikolais (1910-1993), an experimental artist whose works are characterized by the interaction between dance and scenic elements of the stage, such as intense lighting and a play of mirrors.  Until his death in 1982, the elder Carvell was a member of the board of the Alwin Nikolais Company.  Carvell’s mother, Jean Carvell, was a graduate of the Old Vic Theater School in London, where one of her teachers was Selma Jeanne Cohen, a dance historian who edited the first encyclopedia of dance.

Posso dançar para você?, with choreography created especially for open-air performances

Public domain imagesPosso dançar para você?, with choreography created especially for open-air performancesPublic domain images

Through their effort to get their daughter “out of the house and from in front of the television on Saturday mornings,” Carvell’s parents encouraged her to take up dance classes when she was eight years old.  Later, she enrolled in a preparatory program of dance and music classes at the Julliard School in New York.  After beginning her professional career in Martha Graham’s (1894 – 1991) dance company at the age of 17, Carvell joined the dance group led by Paul Sanasardo, a former Graham student and partner of German ballerina / choreographer Pina Bausch (1940-2009), a prominent name in the world of contemporary dance.

Dando corpo à história (Embodying history), the doctoral dissertation, which Carvell defended at Unicamp in 2012 and went on to publish through Prismas publishers in 2015, tells the story of this trajectory.  The study not only analyses the relationship that has existed through the ages between dance artists and their various milieus, but relates Carvell’s experience researching dance.  As she says in her dissertation, “mapping out that great history from which my own experience is derived is a way of situating myself in the past, as well as a way of tracing that past in myself.”