In Deborah Colker’s “Cão Sem Plumas” (“Dog Without Feathers”), the ingredients are film, mud, poetry and dance. Pretty much in that order of importance.
Ms. Colker’s point of departure is João Cabral de Melo Neto’s 1950 poem of the same name, which is inspired by the Capibaribe River in northeastern Brazil and the social disparity in that region. For this 70-minute production Ms. Colker, a Brazilian choreographer, filmed her dancers at the river; they perform in real time in the foreground.
But the overall scene is dark — as in difficult to see. As this meandering work progresses, it does feel like a journey, if a ponderous one, told in eight sections, with scenery that makes it seem as though you’re traveling in a loop.
In Ms. Colker’s piece, which began a run at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday night — it won the Benois de la Danse Award 2018 at Moscow for choreography — the film overwhelms the dance, even when its performers, 14 in all, fill the stage in acrobatic, low-to-the-ground choreography. Their bodies, crouching and pliable, blend into the film like camouflage; all the while, the stage glows with the faintest tinge of amber. A candle or two would help.
While the lighting design by Jorginho De Carvalho sets a certain mood, it also casts the dancers, crawling silkily across the floor like crabs, into obscurity. Their skin and costumes — unitards by Claudia Kopke — are caked with mud to make it seem as though they are river dwellers.
Certain images from the black-and-white film, directed by Cláudio Assis and Ms. Colker, stand out: a parched river bed, smoke billowing from burning cane fields and mangrove trees. Others feel obvious or out of place, as when the dancers roll across the floor (like water?) or pair up in predatory, sculptural shapes (do the constant leg whacks belong in this natural world?) as the film slowly pans across an arid landscape. After a figure in the film creates puffs of dust by rubbing his feet on the dry earth, a dancer, onstage, swivels and swirls under a spotlight within a cloud of powder.
Later, three dancers wearing point shoes arch and preen in birdlike stances — a program note calls this section “Herons” and suggests they represent the elite who “turn their backs on poverty.”
Earlier in the dance, a single heron appeared and refused to mix with the others. But as the grating, percussive music, credited to Jorge Dü Peixe and Berna Ceppas, persists — it’s loud yet somehow always sounds like background noise — the cast mostly clusters in group formations with their arms stretched to either side and their elbows pointed up. In the end, they climb in and out of structures that could be fishing traps or dwellings. (The art direction and stage design are by Gringo Cardia.)
Ms. Colker, the movement director for the opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, may be able to shift large groups around a stage, but here, her structure is repetitive and conventional. In the end, a dancer, described as a huge crab, takes his place on top of a structure. The others, yet again, roll away, which makes it clear what this production is missing: Though inspired by a river, it never flows.
Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker
Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan; joyce.org.