CELEBRATING THE AFRICAN DIASPORA
by William Gooch
published April 3, 2009
wraps up its current tour April 3 in Medford, Oregon and April 5 in
Charlotte, North Carolina
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few
DanceBrazil has always celebrated Brazil’s relationship to the Motherland. With people of African ancestry
making up about two-thirds of Brazil’s population, it would be a next to impossible feat for DanceBrazil to separate its work from African
and indigenous influences. And that mélange of cultures is at the heart of everything that DanceBrazil does.
For its engagement at the Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, DanceBrazil presented works
that celebrated its relationship to the African diaspora. Without the cultural contributions that African slaves have infused into
Brazilian culture, there would be no samba, bossa nova or capoeira. In the ballets Ritmos and Inura presented on March 19, Artistic Director
Jelon Viera has taken these African influences and placed them front and center.
In Ritmos, Act II, Viera
has choreographed a work that not only melds African-based rhythms but also techniques from various movement styles. Viera juxtaposes the
isolations and fall and release styles of the Graham School against the low, winding spins and acrobatic virtuosity of capoeira. This
pulsating homage to all things Bahian celebrates not only the ritualistic sparring that is endemic to capoeira but also the exhilaration and
joy found in the swinging steps of the ginga and virtuosic moves of the aú (cartwheels), pião de cabeça (headspins), and the
gato (jumps and flips). Although Viera has incorporated movement elements of the samba and bossa nova to Tote Gira’s hypnotic score,
the art of capoeira is the driving force of this ballet.
By only performing Act II of this full-length work, Viera facilitates his dancers pulling out all the stops in this most aerobic
excerpt of Ritmos. Arm stand and headstand balances in precarious positions are held beyond what would seem humanly possible. The
gliding, swinging steps of the ginga miraculously connect to impossible in-flight rotations. Also, the women demonstrate that they
are just as capable as the men when performing the pyrotechnical aspects of capoeira. In Ritmos, Viera allows each dancer to use
their individual phrasing to the same steps, which produces the effect of a brilliant syncopated counterpoint.
Inura is a more cerebral foray
into the world of Candomble than some other pieces in DanceBrazil’s repertoire. Often in this work, Carlos Dos Santos does not go for the
expected. For example, Dos Santos creates movement that contradicts recognizable bossa nova rhythms. Instead of sensuous undulations, dancers
support each other in off-centered, inverted developpès and angular lifts. Tania León has created a brilliant score that mixes African
drum patterns, and bossa nova rhythms with a cacophony of atonal sounds. The haunting melodies
and chants conjure up images of the Orixas of the Afro-Brazilian pantheon. This genius work speaks to the Exu energy in all mankind, that
energy that opens one up to life’s possibilities, but that can also, if not honored, constrict our potential.
Jelon Viera has created a dance company that takes the culture and rituals of diasporic Africans and
elevates it from a place of seeming unimportance to the concert stages of the world. And in this, he is making the last become first
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com
read William Gooch's interview with Tania León