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DanceBrazil at the Joyce Theater

March 31, 2012

DanceBrazil Photo by Jelon Vieira

DanceBrazil, in its 35th Anniversary New York City Season will be at the Joyce Theater for two-weeks (March 27 – April 8) with the New York Premier of Imfazwe and Batuke (2011).  Purchase tickets here!

I took my seat last night not really sure what to expect. I am amazed by Capoeira and the sheer dynamism of the art form but what I got was truly more than I could have ever conceived.

The evening began with the New York Premier of Imfazwe, choreographed by Jelon Vieira, the  program notes states that Imfazwe means war in Xhosa, a South African dialect. The stage opens with three dancers in silhouette who are soon joined by the whole company and we are off. The dance begins slowly and majestic, the dancer in white shorts and blue tops.  .

Two men appear as if Gods of War, beautiful, muscular and imposing, they move with such strength and athleticism. Here we see our first Capoeira, the dance/martial arts form created by African slaves in colonial Brazil. Imfazwe is an  artfull blend of Capoira with modern dance.  Luiz Alberto Santana commanded our attention with leaps and aerials the dazzled us, we were breathless when he left the stage.

Throughout Imfazwe we see reference and incorporation of African dance, the raw energy transformed into form and shape. The piece is alive and vibrant creating intensity that builds with each note and movement. The dancers feet are in the air as much as they are on the floor, their bodies creating shapes that twist midair then land only to rebound to create  different seemingly impossible feats, circular kicks, handstands and impossibly high backflips.

DanceBrazil Photo by Tom Pitch

The music by Eduardo Santos and Oumou Sangare, performed live by Dende, Meia Noite and Gil Oliveria was powerful and throbbing, cowbells, percussion and the berimbau, a single-stringed percussion instrument and the most important instrument in Capoeira for it commands how the capoeiristas move in the roda.

The berimbau, a musical bow, consists of a gourd (the cabaça) hollowed out and attached to a very flexible stick called the verga, with a steel string (the arame – often pulled from the inside of an automobile tire) tightly strung and secured from one end of the verga to the other. A small stone or coin (pedra or dobrão) is held between the index and thumb of the same hand that holds the berimbau. In the other hand, one holds a stick (baqueta or “vaqueta” – usually wooden, very rarely made of metal) and a shaker (caxixi), and it creates a sound that is unmistakable and hauntingly beautiful.

The movements in Imfazwe are fast and serious and the choreography flows in ritualistic patterns, the dancers weaving in and out of trios, solos and duets that blend back into the group.

The evening closed with Batuke, created by Mr. Vieira in 2011, it is much lighter subject matter than Imfazwe, filled with music by Daniel Santos that was percussive and repetitive with a driving beat that only escalated as the performance progressed.

Batuke is a term used to describe the sounds and rhythms made by “non-traditional” instruments and played during Carnival. It is joyous celebration and a blend of candomble, samba, Capoeira,African and modern dance. I did not find it to have the depth of Imfazwe, but it is definite crowd pleaser, with the audience cheering and clapping along with the music.

It is filled with the tricks and gymnastics that is Capoeira, one man taking a handstand that seemed to last forever was spectacular. Men gathered in a circle beginning the back-and-forth steps known as ginga which escalates into  round kicks and jumps that end with twisted body rolls. Live music made the performance seem very personal and gave an authenticity that is vital to DanceBrazil and Jelon Vieira.

DanceBrazil "Batuke" Photo by Eileen Travell

In the company’s program notes, Artistic Director Jelon Vieira offers the following account of a particularly influential moment regarding the berimbau and the inspiration for his new work Batuke.

“My first real understanding of rhythm and music came when I was ten years old and first heard the berimbau, the stringed instrument that is the soul of Capoeira. Shortly after I moved to New York as a young man in 1975, that understanding was greatly expanded when John Cage invited me to his loft to play the berimbau. He wanted to tape the session. It was a hot day, and I asked him if we could close the windows because the noise from the street was distracting. He looked at me hard and snapped, “that’s not noise; that’s music that inspires me.”

“Pure John Cage, as I soon learned, but my late mother would have disagreed with the famous composer. Take Batuke (Batuque), a term used to describe the sounds and rhythms made by “non-traditional” instruments and played during Carnival. When my friends and I played Batuke on anything that we could put our hands on, my mother would predictably scream, “stop that noise!” For us, as it would have been for John Cage, Batuke (Batuque) was pure and sweet music, but for her it was the worst cacophony.”

“The sounds and rhythms of Batuke–call them music or call them noise, I don’t care–are the driving force behind this dance, incorporated into the movement of the human body: smooth samba steps, lethal Capoeira kicks, the plain but sensuous walk of Bahian women, and much more. When it came to actually selecting the music for this piece, although I thought of John Cage and my mother, it was the streets of Salvador, Bahia that I know so well where music and dance are ever-present that inspired me.”

Mr. Vieira states that Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art, “a fight like a dance and a dance like a fight, you can’t separate them”. He has found a unique blend of dance and Capoeira that is alive and a trill to watch. Bravo!



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