DanceBrazil’s exuberant performance at the Celebrate Brooklyn Festival in mid-July confirmed its place as one of the leading professional folk dance companies in the nation. Through its mixture of the traditional and contemporary, DanceBrazil, founded by Jelon Vieira, has acted as ambassador for Afro-Brazilian culture for over 25 years.
The show Camará, meaning comrade, choreographed by Vieira in 1997, featured a striking array of Afro-Brazilian dance performed by a compelling group of artists with live accompaniment. Opening with a ritual sequence, the dancers entered the stage one by one and anointed themselves. Here, Vieira alluded to the samba’s connection to candomblé, a religion resulting from centuries of clandestine worship of the African Gods by slaves in Brazil.
Camará included many dances derived from working in the fields. The most impressive incorporated maculele, an acrobatic stick dance that evolved from the gestures of harvesting cane. The other dances featuring samba were often performed in simple formations that highlighted the footwork—a beautiful mixture of lightness and earthy pounding. Dancer Alex Brito was outstanding. From the waist up he appeared to hover, while his lower body moved with intensity.
For the most part, Vieira seamlessly wove contemporary movements (split leaps and quick turns) into the more traditional dancing. But sometimes it lacked the depth and force of the folkloric. This was particularly evident in the partnering sequences which often looked like ice dancing by way of Bahia.
But it is was capoeira that formed the heart of Camará. Often described as the roots of breakdancing, this martial art was disguised as a dance by African slaves to fool their Portuguese owners. Capoeira combines dance, percussion, song, ritual, fighting techniques, and acrobatics. Vieira employed this vocabulary for choreographic effect in a crowd-pleasing celebration of the form. The men displayed unbelievable strength; they lowered themselves from handstands to impossible, almost yogic, positions parallel to the floor. At one point, a male dancer hopped across the stage on his hands—a move that was at once virtuosic and sexy and elicited much cheering. The men also delighted as they flipped at increasingly impossible angels. Vieira had the good sense to have them perform their moves in succession—it took a while for people to realize what they were actually seeing. In the end, capoeira was displayed in its martial form, and moves that previously looked playful were shown to be quite lethal.
It often can be a challenge for folkloric companies to balance entertainment with dancing’s spiritual roots. Vieira’s Camará was successful on all fronts; he made palpable the reckless excitement of the music and movement while showing that dance and worship are indivisible.
SHANTI CRAWFORD is a choreographer and writer based in Greenpoint.