"Don't grin like this," said Marciano Silva dos Santos, as he shaped his mouth into a stage smile. Then the dancer and choreographer swiveled low to the floor to demonstrate a move to his dancers. "Smile with your whole body. Let them see your spirit beaming through all of you."
One of the fiercest and finest movers in the Twin Cities, with an action-figure physique and a reputation for fluid lyricism, Brazilian-born Dos Santos has erupted on many Twin Cities stages. At Penumbra Theatre, he danced the role of Joseph in "Black Nativity." He also has drawn positive attention for performances with Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theatre. And his "transcendent" 2009 solo turn in "Sense(ability) Sketch 1" for TU Dance at the O'Shaughnessy Auditorium helped him snag City Pages' best dancer of the year honor. "Dos Santos traveled the stage with the buoyant yet careful grace of a space walker," said the write-up of the fleet-footed mover who moved to the Twin Cities in 2006. He and American dancer Jenny Pennaz fell in love while she was an exchange student in Brazil. The two were wed in 2009.
Now the "space walker" and Pennaz are stepping out. They founded Contempo Physical Dance, a new company dedicated to harmonizing discrete influences, including Afro-Brazilian dance, capoeira martial arts and modern dance, into a seamless whole. Dos Santos choreographs, and his wife dances in the company.
At Saturday's rehearsal, Dos Santos alternately held his arms akimbo, folded them over his chest or swung them loosely as he put his dancers through their paces for "Motirô," Contempo's first evening-length work. He explained during a break that the title comes from an indigenous Brazilian word meaning people "pulling together to build something." The work, from history to the present, tells vibrant and vivid stories of struggle and survival, of laughter and longing.
The dancers, a diverse array of students and professionals drawn from the University of Minnesota and from the Twin Cities scene, seemed to embody the company's goals as they executed a battery of demanding physical moves, including swift jumps and sharp turns. Some of the intense movements were followed by moments of meditative stillness.
'Original' dance language
"This work is based in Afro-Brazilian dance, yes, and in capoeira, but there is nothing like it here," said Roxane Wallace-Patterson, a veteran Twin Cities dancer and a member of Contempo. "It is so fresh and original. It's like Marciano has taken the language of all these styles and is speaking it in his own ... voice."
How he communicates that language to the dancers, getting them to absorb the work into their bodies, is also unique. In most companies, choreographers start sections by counting "5, 6, 7, 8," then launch into movement. At Contempo, Dos Santos does not count. He sings in a staccato, scat-like fashion imbued with rhythm. His voice sounds like a conga drum.
"We dance to the rhythm, on the beat, behind the beat, under it," said dancer Orlando Hunter. "There's a lot of technique that we have to learn, but then there's so much other information."
The company's other dancers include dreadlocked performer Davente Gilreath, Irving Amigon and Timothy Herian. Contempo has five male dancers and three females, an unusual mix in a field with a national shortage of male dancers.
The new company is making its debut in a bleak economy where mortal threats keep coming at arts organizations. But its founders are determined and optimistic.
"We have something unique to offer, and that's why we are going to succeed," said Pennaz. "The title of our show represents our ethos as a company. We're paying everyone, from students to Marciano, the same amount. And we have a commitment to bringing diverse, exciting work here."
Dos Santos shares his wife's optimism, although he said that he is the more grounded of the pair.
"Jenny is the dreamer, but we take it one day at a time," he said. "I want to get this show up. I would like to soar, too, but I want to plant my feet first."