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‘Brazil Is Burning, and We’re Just Performing a Lot of Abstract Gestures’

This summer, as fires scorched portions of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, and the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, dismissed international outrage about it, the choreographer Bruno Beltrão wondered whether dance could make a meaningful contribution to his country.

“Brazil is burning,” Mr. Beltrão said in a recent phone interview, “and we’re just performing a lot of abstract gestures.”

Politics and its relation to art were very much on Mr. Beltrão’s mind. A founder of the contemporary hip-hop troupe Grupo de Rua, his 2017 abstract work “Inoah” arrives at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Thursday. While the dance predates Brazil’s current crises, and Mr. Beltrão doesn’t view it as making an explicit political statement, he wondered if the work nevertheless reflects the country’s long-simmering tensions.

“As the piece stands today,” he said, “does it already present the social turmoil we live in?”

“Inoah” is named for the Rio-adjacent city where Mr. Beltrão, 40, found affordable rehearsal space and where he and Grupo de Rua spent months improvising choreography and sculpting it into a dance. While in residence there, the company worked in what Mr. Beltrão referred to as a large shed overlooking a distant mountain, a telephone pole and tangled wires — a landscape, he said, that seems “to ask us how our dance communicates with the world.”

That desire to be in dialogue with the world shows how far Grupo de Rua has evolved. What began as a standard hip-hop crew relying on spectacle has become a thoughtful challenger of hip-hop and street-dance conventions, as well as the gender expectations that accompany those forms.

Grupo de Rua’s journey began in the early 1990s in Niterói, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. Mr. Beltrão was around 12 when his friends dragged him to a dance club where MC Hammer and Sir Mix-a-Lot were the rage. The dancing there inspired Mr. Beltrão and his friend Rodrigo Bernardi, who started taking, then teaching hip-hop classes; when they had founded Grupo de Rua, or Street Group, in 1996, Mr. Beltrão was only 16.

Grupo de Rua took a turn toward the unconventional when Mr. Beltrão attended university and was exposed to a broad spectrum of contemporary dance and artists like William Forsythe, who disassembled familiar forms and reassembled them in unfamiliar ways. Mr. Beltrão began to question his own work: If contemporary dance could be performed in silence, and wasn’t afraid to turn its back to the audience, why not hip-hop?

Mr. Beltrão began experimenting, and his group made inroads on the contemporary dance scene. “But suddenly we were kind of excluded from the hip-hop scene,” he said. This version of Grupo de Rua made its New York debut in 2010 with “H3,” which introduced audiences to the company’s affecting brand of unadorned theatrics and virtuosity without swagger.

Those qualities remain in “Inoah.” David Binder, the artistic director of the Brooklyn Academy, said the dance was “incredibly intense one moment and incredibly joyous the next.” Mr. Binder was also impressed by Mr. Beltrão’s mix of styles and his vigorous deconstruction of masculinity. “Together, it’s really creating something singular.”

In a recent conversation Mr. Beltrão discussed the themes that have long informed his work, the impact of Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration on Brazilian culture, and whether politics should be more directly addressed in his future work. What follows are edited excerpts.

What aspects of hip-hop dance are you examining in “Inoah”?

The movement [in hip-hop] is not inviting dancers to be together. It’s not a dance that asks the other person to be close. Actually, it looks like you’re doing the opposite, like the gestures are expelling, pushing away. In “Inoah,” in our improvisation, we’re always searching for a gesture [that connects] two people, a gesture that needs the other person. One work that influenced a lot of “Inoah” was “N.N.N.N.” by William Forsythe that I totally love and that I think is really one of the best works I have seen.

What did you take from the Forsythe?

One of the things is the relationship to weight. When I met Forsythe, he did a gesture with me from “N.N.N.N.” I gave my arm to him, and then he threw my arm up, and he said: “You see? You’re totally blocked.” Then I relaxed, and he did it again.

This movement is very simple, but it was amazingly meaningful for what [Grupo de Rua] was doing because we are not very keen on this kind of giving weight or giving yourself to another body. People were not relying on each other. They were not trusting.

But there is an intimacy, vulnerability and a kind of anti-machismo among your dancers that’s not typical of hip-hop.

One of the questions we are asking is: Is there any space for subtly, for softness — for being not tough and not hard the way hip-hop always is? Is there space to be another way?

We always feel that for the hip-hop audience, our work is not very easy because there is darkness, because there is silence, because there is movement that is not spectacular. But we don’t care because we know that if we wanted to, we could do something explosive all the time. But the way we impact how people receive our work is by being subtle, by being soft, by being slow.

You have said you’re interested in how hip-hop interacts with the world. How do we see that in “Inoah”?

“Inoah” is a very abstract work, and it’s not easy to take concrete solutions or thoughts from it. It’s a dance piece full of gestures, and it’s totally not precise.

This is a question I’m asking all the time: Does what we do now already have all the signs of the turbulence that is happening around us? Or do we still have to refine what we are doing to be more engaged, to be more political? And at the same time, how can we do a dance that’s not influenced by our life? This is impossible.

So how have politics in Brazil influenced your work?

We’re consciously discussing this inside the company because we would like the piece somehow to be more clear, so that we could touch these themes more precisely, instead of it being so abstract. But at the same time, I’m very afraid of being too clear or being very specific with an idea. It can diminish what we are doing. In university, we studied some letters of [the 18th-century choreographer Jean-Georges] Noverre, and one of the things that struck me was this phrase that he has, that if you want to say too many things with dance, just write a letter and don’t do dance.

How has Grupo de Rua felt the effects of the new government?

If we were not having [much] support before, now it’s totally unthinkable to have any kind of financial support in Brazil. We don’t have one single performance in Brazil, not one single invitation [to perform] in our country. This is not normal. If we didn’t have this relationship with the international scene, I don’t know if the company would be alive. How would we have the power inside to continue? How do the artists who don’t have this relationship with the international scene, with all the resources, how are they surviving?

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