Running Backwards in Advance of Yourself

On Language and Community in the Work of Bruno Beltrão and Grupo de Rua de Niterói

The Time We Share 2015English
Daniel Blanga-Gubbay and Lars Kwakkenbos (eds.), The Time We Share. Reflecting on and through Performing Arts, Brussels: Mercatorfonds/Kunstenfestivaldesarts, 2015, pp. 275-282

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One performer stands downstage left with his back to the audience while another is running backwards for minutes on end in quasi-darkness. He describes several large circles, pauses to observe the space, then continues in smaller circles, slowing down to change direction with a hop and a skip, and again and again, to pick up speed spiralling around his own axis. He briefly pauses to double the position of his witness and then face him for a moment before turning and observing the space just described once more. And then he lets himself be sucked into that orbit again, to sometimes launch outward by zigzagging or frenetically locomoting sideways. Seeking to harness these restless energies and conflicting forces by compressing them into anchored gestures of bending, swaying and groping, the dancer eventually finds himself spinning to the floor, to sit down and look at the space while the light comes up.

What moves the dancer in this exploration of the blind space behind his back? What is the promise residing in this dark gravitational pull towards a private space, ultimately not even accessible to himself? Or is it perhaps a centrifugal force that drives him towards the other? All the while the second performer remains motionless, and so do the many other witnesses behind him in the theatre. Afterwards the two dancers engage in a syncopated duet that time and again subsides before it takes off, like a confrontation with invisible forces that inhibit their movements, or a series of feints. To some extent they remain isolated individuals, who share the same space but not quite the same language. Are their movements foreign, then, and if so, to whom?

This scene occurs halfway through H2-2005, a group piece from 2005 that marks a change of direction in the work of the Brazilian choreographer Bruno Beltrão and his Grupo de Rua de Niterói.(1) Expanding hip-hop with yet another movement dialect has never been Beltrão’s interest. For that, he is too critical of hip-hop’s branding strategies, just as claiming a single language is too narrow a space for developing complex thought. That we humans are anyway all too keen on pursuing habits and patterns is one of the concerns that underpin Beltrão’s playful deconstruction of hip-hop dances, their machismo and the cult of virtuosity and black music. Recurring strategies in his pieces are embracing contradiction and exposing hip-hop’s phraseology to other cultural languages and practices, including those of contemporary dance and of the theatre space. Influenced by choreographer Jérôme Bel, the early works have captions, irony and waterproof dramaturgy to tame the potentially rambunctious energies of clashing languages. H2-2005 has both aspects, but leans towards a choreographic articulation of the movement material and the overall composition, which becomes only more present in the later group works H3 (2008) and CRACKz (2013). To unravel the intriguing running backwards scene at the heart of H2-2005, which seems to contain some crucial questions in understanding Bruno Beltrão’s body of work, we must follow its wayward and smouldering energies, moving both forward and backward in time.




‘The most important questions in my work have always been aesthetic in nature, rather than social or political, even though this artistic focus does have wider implications.’ This is one of the first things Bruno Beltrão said when I interviewed him in May 2004, when he presented his early works at the Kunstenfestivaldesdarts in Brussels.

In spite of Beltrão’s assertion, we did actually speak about the productional conditions of his Grupo de Rua, a local group of boys from Niterói who would never have imagined leaving that context but suddenly found themselves travelling to international festivals. We spoke about problems of tolerance and violence in Rio de Janeiro, and about the relation of survival and being creative with limited means. We spoke about the narrow views of hip-hop that provide a shared language and horizon for Beltrão and his collaborators, but also about challenging this fundamentalism, pushing hip-hop into a crisis and exploring it as a language and knowledge system. After a long, rambling conversation Beltrão concluded:

Developing openness for an existing reality and analysing it, that’s what I find important. How can hip-hop contribute to a better understanding of the world we’re living in? That’s perhaps rather too big a question, certainly since I don’t have a particular future in view. Yet you have to believe in something to be able to make work, even though there will always arise doubt.(2)

Holding on to the doubt and appreciating the artistic questions and formal choreographic quality is a challenge with which Beltrão’s work confronts the spectators. And it invites me, as a writer, to move through the constraining experience of its formalism in order to discover the work’s worldly character.

Although political exoticism might be a trap for interpretation, there is another spell lingering in the work from which Beltrão never fully steers clear, deliberately so: hip-hop’s penchant for virtuosity and spectacle. In H2-2005 the running backwards scene unfolds into complex group choreography that skirts legibility and has as much in common with the legacy of choreographer Merce Cunningham as with hip-hop. Yet, various elements of that choreography are laid out in the opening part of the piece, with brief solos to music for violin by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (with a caption that states: ‘Hip hop loves the beat of the music’), but also lengthy, slow toprock explorations in silence, in which solo dancers negotiate time while formulating gestures and rhythm – a quality of insistence common in Beltrão’s work. After abstraction and formal experiment have been pushed to the extreme in the second half of the piece, Beltrão ends H2-2005 with an endless relay of dancers showing off their tricks one by one to blasting music. Is this a chance for the dancers to recapture  their ‘own’ language, or just indulge in cliché and spectacle? For the audience, is it a moment of recognition, or an ambiguous game with their expectations?




Asked how he translates wider concerns that surround the work into artistic questions, Beltrão told me:

Style and signature are side issues, it’s rather a matter of developing concepts to interpret existing material. What is art? How do people behave in a group? How do they relate to expectations and leadership? How do power relations function? That sort of question interests me. I don’t dance myself any longer, for I don’t find my own body language specific enough to construct complex arguments. To me it is exciting to see how other dancers appropriate these concepts, how their ways of thinking and moving are related.(3)

The latter is the basis of Beltrão’s seminal work Me and my choreographer in 63 (2001), in which he portrays the dancer Eduardo Hermanson, nicknamed Willow. While the solo unfolds, we hear excerpts of a conversation with Hermanson, secretly recorded by Beltrão in a hotel room one afternoon. In the programme notes Beltrão wonders: ‘Is it possible to know who he is through the dances he makes? What does he think he communicates with his dance?’ And elsewhere he explains:

I realised that he dances like he talks and he talks like he thinks and the other way around, in a very visible way. I wanted to talk about this body that is coherent and unique. From that moment on it was clear to me that I could use the contemporary dance approach but keep the break-dance and the hip-hop elements that were true to me and my history.(4)

The various solos that open H2-2005 are also portraits of sorts, yet what does this singularity of the individual dancers consist of? As the solos are danced upright and frontally in a limited space, they take on the familiar form called ‘toprock’ in b-boying. Toprock consists of stylised variations on walking, standing and holding oneself: the combination of rhythm, steps and gestures marks individual styles, and grounds the body language of the dancers. If contemporary dance tends to insist on the dancer’s idiosyncrasy in the development of a movement language, toprock seems to function somewhat differently as a language. Virtuosity and competition are central elements to the form, so individuals do actively combine and negotiate stock phrases as a horizon against which their personal accents become meaningful. As a form of speech and display, toprock is not so much a dialect as a jargon or slang: a carefully constructed language that is perpetually updated and understood by a small group of people only.

Issues of pride, virtuosity, competition and deliberate exclusion of the non-initiated have a clear function of empowerment here. This is a recurring social and artistic strategy in history – think, for instance, of the voguing dance style invented in Harlem ballrooms in the early 1960s. Or take the development of bebop by black hipsters in New York in the 1940s, a phenomenon in which musicians challenged instituted traditions by alternative dress codes, ways of speaking and, as an extension of this, new musical languages shared by a small group only. Reflecting on language and social history, Eric Lott writes: ‘their jargon, in itself a kind of improvisation, bucked the regulations of accepted articulateness. These were self-styled ghetto intellectuals, stifled in the kind of ambition that only the musicians were able to fulfill.’(5) He continues: ‘At its hippest (and meanest), such a common language became a closed hermeneutic that had the undeniable effect of alienating the riff-raff and expressing a sense of felt isolation, all the while affirming a collective purpose – even at the expense of other musicians.’(6)

Although the development of b-boying and hip-hop since the 1970s happened initially in a similar way, in recent years it has certainly been influenced by the Internet. The flood of tutorials on YouTube has made b-boying widely accessible beyond local styles and turned it into a mainstream and often stale form, with an increasing circulation of clichés, tricks and stock phrases overriding hybridity’s potential.

Since Beltrão states that at some point he ‘grew tired of the fixed codes that define the street dance milieu’, his turning towards contemporary dance can be understood as a way of reclaiming the (artistic and political) power of b-boying as a jargon that is to be invented anew time and again.(7) His portrait of Eduardo Hermanson in Me and my choreographer in 63 also foregrounds the singularity of the performer – that is, individual ways of speaking, thinking and moving – as a basis for the development of a particular body language. In a similar vein, the running backwards solo in H2-2005 claims idiosyncratic language over instituted grammars, just like it is a portrait of the dancer Thiago Almeida. His running backwards appears to be borrowed from yet another practice and the movement patterns familiar to it, even though they are now abstracted and transformed into a hybrid for the theatre stage: in-line skating. However mainstream or idiosyncratic movement jargons might be, as languages they are inevitably relational and nurtured by various cultural practices. How else can singular habits become a form of communication and a shared language?




Bringing hip-hop into a crisis seems by and large to motivate H2-2005. The individual toprock styles of the dancers are increasingly abstracted and combined in small group formations of four to six individuals, who are performing complex spatial patterns and once in a while picking up one another’s phrase in brief moments of unison. The choreographies are formally intricate, but what do they convey? The unisons provide anchoring points for the performers and make clear to the spectators that they are actually negotiating a shared system and language, not just expressing their whims. But when it comes to the promise of language as that which initiates and carries a (temporary) community, many questions remain pertaining to the forms of relationality these dancers are engaged in. What should we think of the all-male cast when it comes to bonding? Why is there no contact between them? What kind of self-image do these men propose? Where do their gestures comes from? How are they permeable to the environment and to a sense of history? And then there is the question of witnessing: how do these gestures speak in this particular context, in the niche of contemporary dance and European audiences?

If Bruno Beltrão is honing his movement language and choreographic skills in H2-2005, then the subsequent group piece H3 is an in-depth exploration of all these lingering questions.(8) Or, better still, it articulates and embodies these questions in a precise choreographic form.

The stage is dimly lit, leaving the edges wrapped in shadow as dark areas for the dancers to hide – an off-space that remains visible to the spectators. We are seated close to the stage, which is not distant and raised but bordering the audience space. This proximity is amplified by a soundtrack of persistent street noise, as if we were in a dance studio in Niterói. In fact, it is the streets of Anderlecht we are hearing, that is, a recording of the world just outside permeating the walls and intermingling with this fiction of the intimate studio space. Very slowly, over the course of 15 minutes or so, we see the dancers trickle one by one into the lit area downstage. Standing or seated close to each other, two dancers, each in turn, make frenetic gestures along their own body’s contours. They are mapping absences and invisible forces that surround them, or perhaps they are shielding themselves, marking their boundaries and the sphere of interaction with the other. But then they change quickly into exploring the other’s proximity with abrupt moves, challenging each other’s kinesphere and trying to provoke the other. The variety is large: teasing and shadow-boxing, patting and covering each other’s backs, but also wild interaction reminiscent of krumping, from mock fighting and acting cool and unmoved, to throwing and thrashing the other or dragging the other across the stage. Whether slow or fast, each gesture is brimming with energy, exuding conflict as much as playfulness. After a while, the choreography is pulled into space, with the dancers juxtaposing and mingling their duets into all kinds of permutations and configurations, eventually negotiating the space’s borders in bodies spinning and whirling all over, as if they are about to venture into the space occupied by the spectators.

These duets deconstruct hip-hop’s figure of the macho solo performer showing off in a frontal setting. Yet, where the duets in H2-2005 are basically multiplications and abstractions of toprock, the centrifugal quality of H3’s movement material has different overtones: from reaching toward the other, or standing in the world, to getting rid of the violent forces by which one is haunted. The duet introduces an altogether different understanding of identity, which starts from intersubjectivity. Dialogical by nature, the duets in H3 are also informed by the Californian ‘krumping’ style (through one of his company members, Beltrão picked up throwing movements from krumping). This form came to emergence in the early 1990s and received wide attention through David LaChapelle’s documentary Rize (2005) about the clowning and krumping scenes in Los Angeles. Profoundly social and worldly, krumping mimics and ritualises street violence, neutralising and redirecting it for artistic purposes and social empowerment.

Meeting with Bruno Beltrão the day after the performance of H3 for another interview (9), we spoke about his interest in enquiring into various social relations and touch, and about collaboration as a method for developing movement vocabulary for a group. We also spoke about choreographing complex spatial patterns, about floorwork and particularly the use of the ‘zulu spin’ (one of the first movements that overturned hip-hop’s upright stance and took b-boying to the floor during the block parties in the Bronx in the 1970s), which now symbolically appears as a citation of old hip-hop dancing in his work, even though Beltrão has fundamental doubts about ‘ancestral gestures’ that seek to reference origins or claim roots, for, he maintains, hip-hop can only grow more complex and open ‘when you cease to approach it as an unchanging form, when you take the familiar basis away and start exploring the limits of each gesture’ – in brief, we spoke about so many contextual elements, a sense of history and reflections that in the work appear submerged in forms, movements and gestures, yet profoundly mark their density and relationality.




At various moments throughout H3 the dancers are running backwards rapidly – making Thiago Almeido’s movement material from H2-2005 their shared language. They move one by one, in duets after being thrown into the arena by four colleagues, or everyone together: nine people occupy the whole space by navigating blindly and crisscross without ever bumping, transposing the centrifugal force of their gestures and interactions onto the group as a whole. After unleashing this energy, the movements are as quickly suspended by the performers, who throw their heads backwards and continue wandering backwards for a moment, slowly and vulnerable. Once more the dancers embrace absences, this time including the endless space behind their backs, a body part that symbolises their own blind spots.(10) Their insecure movements have wiped out all vestiges of machismo, to appear as powerful gestures of exposure.

Over the course of H3 the space slowly transforms from a near-dark and intimate studio-like environment with echoes of the world creeping in, to a brightly-lit theatre in which a group of men is running backwards over the opaque mirror of a shiny black dance floor. Even though H3 is often spectacular because of its highly energetic flow, it does not seek to end on a high note – unlike the spectacle that concludes H2-2005. While the light has by then opened up the horizon and is flooding the space, the dancers simply break up their phrases and ramble on a little, wandering backwards with their heads thrown back, or whirl to the periphery of the space. With their movements directed towards the back, it is as if the dancers are running in advance of themselves, blind into the unknown.(11) Their movements bear witness to the social space, where people are always in advance of themselves, exposed to the other and to the world even before they can relate to it. The dancers moreover allow themselves to be involved with what is other than oneself, a gesture of acknowledgement that is a deliberate and utterly contemporary statement about vulnerability and subjectivisation. The theatre is not just a scale model of the social space: it creates a particular space of encounter, and that is precisely the promise lingering in the movements of the Grupo de Rua. Are their movements foreign, then, and, if so, to whom?

Before you realise, the choreography suddenly falls apart and is swallowed by a black-out. There is no escape from this opacity: these movements and dramaturgy will never become fully transparent to you or to anyone else present in the theatre, performers nor other spectators. In that brief moment of the black-out you become aware of how the promise of language and of community, that is of your own experimenting with ways of being different offered by the now fading choreography and its still persisting imaginary realm, is kept in suspense. Whether you have recognised the genealogy and intricacies of the Grupo de Rua’s movement language or not, is ultimately not the point. Even as a memory, their movements contain an invitation to you to embrace your own unfamiliar desires and hold on to the foreign elements and centrifugal energies that fling you about, as if you were spinning around your own axis or blindly running backwards, always in advance of yourself, always wavering, wayward and worldward – and this while being witnessed by others.




(1) I saw H2-2005 on 6th May 2005 at the Halles de Schaerbeek in Brussels during the Kunstenfestivaldesarts.

(2) Interview on 17th May 2004 in Brussels.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Bruno Beltrão, in Nayse López, ‘Real Contemporary Dance’, Ballettanz (April 2003), p. 35.

(5) Eric Lott, ‘Double V, double-time: bebop’s politics of style’, Callaloo 36 (Summer 1988), p. 598.

(6) Ibid., p. 600.

(7) On the politics of activating jargons over the power of instituted languages, see  Giorgio Agamben, ‘Languages and Peoples’ (1995), in Idem, Means without End: Notes on Politics (London and Minneapolis, 2000), pp. 63–70.

(8) I saw H3 on 12th and 15th May 2008 at La Raffinerie in Brussels during the Kunstenfestivaldesarts.

(9) Interview on 17th May 2008 in Brussels.

(10) About the blind space behind the back as a physical symbol in cultural history and contemporary dance, see Jeroen Peeters, Through the Back. Situating Vision between Moving Bodies (Helsinki, 2014).

(11) The expression ‘being in advance of oneself’ is inspired by Jean-Luc Nancy, see ‘The Look of the Portrait’ (2000), in Idem, Multiple Arts: The Muses II, Simon Sparks (ed.), (Stanford, CA, 2006), esp. pp. 228–34.