On Friday night, Contempo Physical Dance shared a poignant depiction of the journey from freedom into captivity (and back). With the world premiere of “SenZalma,” the troupe displayed its growing unity as an ensemble led by artistic director/choreographer Marciano Silva dos Santos, a native of Brazil now based in the Twin Cities.

The title is an amalgamation of two words: “senzala” (slave quarters) and “alma” (soul). Slaves in Brazil were believed to have no souls and were housed in senzalas. Dos Santos combined this concept with selections from “O Navio Negreiro (The Slave Ship)” written by 19th-century abolitionist poet Castro Alves. Projected painterly images by Josh Sarantitis of sky, sea, sun and stars — as well as the darkness in between — depict the passage of time with hope only the faintest glimmer on the horizon.

The evening-length work is less literal than reflective. The dancing, a blend of Afro-Brazilian dance, capoeira and contemporary movement, depicts the cruelties of slavery using poignant choreographic choices. Hands slap against backs and wrists are raised together as if bound. Bodies roil as if suffering through a cramped crossing over rough seas.

The full company of eight dancers and two apprentices appears together often on stage but some of the best memories come from particularly strong individual performances by Kasono Mwanza, Gemma Isaacson, Davente Gilreath and Elander Rosser. Dos Santos has trained all of his company members well in a range of movement styles, but these dancers infuse their stage presence with fluidity, power and a promise of taking no moment for granted, taking the performance to another level.

Brazilian composer Divanir Antonio Gattamorta (aka Divan) deserves special mention. His beautiful score is rich in its shifting moods. Sounds of water, drums, capoeira rhythms and a hint of carnival toward the end of the piece infuse the musical selections, partnering the movement choices by Dos Santos in a full and satisfying manner.

While “SenZalma” explores a painful time in history — and its ripple effects into the present — the work also focuses on the process of liberation. There’s a frank assessment of the horror combined with the promise of hope, especially as the dancing takes on more air (literally) through bounding leaps and jumps. Wrongs cannot be undone, but survival is about transcendence, and this work achieves it.


Caroline Palmer writes about dance.