To hear Sharon Litwin’s interview with Diogo De Lima on WWNO radio, click here.
Diogo De Lima’s love affair with New Orleans began the day he set foot in this city. It was 2003, and the then-24-year-old Brazilian dancer and his company, Grupo Corpo, had just come from a very chilly, snow-covered Canada to the mild and sunny South to perform at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre of the Performing Arts. They only spent four days here, but in that short time the city bewitched all of them; no one more so than Diogo.
“We tried to understand why we were so excited,” he says. “But the city does that to you. This city kind of embraces you.”
The group left for Los Angeles, but not before Diogo had arranged to return as soon as their West Coast performance was over. It was something he continued to do whenever he had time off between the company’s South American and European appearances. And so it went until June 2005, when Diogo decided to live in the Crescent City. It was not good timing, Diogo recalls, since he, like everyone else, was chased away by Hurricane Katrina. He went back to Brazil, but returned in early 2006 and accepted the position of Professor of Dance at Tulane University.
This week Diogo will present a new, specially-commissioned work at the Marigny Opera House’s New Dance Festival. Collaborating with New Orleans singer John Boutte, who will appear live with his band, Diogo has choreographed a contemporary dance work he hopes will showcase the cultural similarities between Brazil and New Orleans.
“So I call it South/South; South America and Southern United States,” Diogo explains. “I focus on the similarities in our music and the rhythms. We basically have the same pasts; European colonial culture and African rhythms.”
It was not Diogo’s intent to become a dancer. For a child who grew up on a dairy farm near a small city in Sao Paolo state, he says the idea never crossed his mind until he escorted his little cousin to dance lessons.
“I was 9 years old when I started to make trips to take her to the studio, but I was actually not interested at all,” he recalls. But as time went by, as young as he was, there was a change in his attitude.
“I had a dream; I thought, I’m going to be an actor,” he says. “So I figured I might as well start working on coordination to make that happen. So I started taking dance classes.”
As it turned out, he was very good indeed. But, “a boy to dance in Brazil, it’s not OK,” Diogo says. “My parents did not know about it. I told them I had joined a swim team. But actually I was dancing all day.”
A supportive aunt provided cover, allowing Diogo to stash his ballet shoes and tights at her house. Soon he was appearing at major dance festivals and at one was awarded a gold medal. The event made the newspapers. When he got home his parents greeted him in the kitchen with the paper in their hands.
“I tried to deny it. I said, Oh, that’s not me, the guy in the paper just looks like me, but it’s not me; he has the same name, but it’s not me,” he says laughing wryly. “Instead of being proud, they said this needs to stop right now. So I said OK.”
Shortly after the kitchen encounter, however, he was awarded a place in the school of the Royal Academy of Dance in London. But how to break that news? Always resourceful, Diogo, who was to perform in a festival in his hometown, had a plan.
“I invited all my family members to go to the theater, but I did not tell them I was going to perform,” he says. “I told them they were going to watch my cousin perform. They all went and I performed, and I think that changed things, once they saw me. They could understand what I was doing.”
At the end of the show, Diogo’s parents, amazed at what they had seen, told him how proud they were of him. “We got back home and I told them I’m leaving to London,” Diogo says, laughing again at the memory. “And there was another no because I was 13 years old.”
But, of course, Diogo did go. After three years in London, it was back to Brazil and an almost decade-long international dance career. And now, he belongs to New Orleans. While he travels back and forth between his two countries, he has put down roots in the Crescent City, happily training talented young dancers, and being an enthusiastic member of New Orleans’ growing, vibrant, alternative contemporary dance community.
For more information about the New Dance Festival taking place taking place Thursday, September 26 to 28 at the Marigny Opera House, go to www.marignyoperahouse.org