Dancers & Companies

Brazil: From Samba to Ballet to Hip Hop

By Wendy Perron

My whirlwind, three-city tour of Brazil started with Samba and ended with a very cool improvisation group. In between were hip hop, Balanchine, dancing in the streets, and Amazon-inspired rituals. Oh, and a funding inequity between a new ballet company and other groups that has many dance people seething with resentment (more on that later).

My guide was the intrepid Holly Cavrell, former Martha Graham dancer who teaches at the University of Campinas and has written for Dance Magazine. She and her colleagues brought me into dance studios, each an enchanted world that reflected the sheer ingenuity of finding a space and infusing it with a vibrant sense of craft. And just as graffiti and artistic murals are blended together all over Brazil, so too vernacular dance seeps into concert dance.

First stop: Rio de Janeiro

Choreographer Andrea Jabor shares an inter-disciplinary space with four other artists, including a fashion designer. We walked up a narrow stairway to a tiny studio, where beautiful objects and garments were all over the place. Jabor’s current women dancers have an earthy, playful appeal and look like they were born doing Samba—and that’s how she used them. The one man present did a Samba tap dance—I had no idea such a thing existed. Very elegant and delicate on the balls of the feet.

Later that day we saw a real, pre-Carnaval Samba show in Padre Miguel favela (favelas are like shanties, usually studding the hillsides). Hundreds of people were packed like sardines in the large, open-ended quadra. To our left a bateria of about 150 percussionists stoked everybody into a fevered dance state. On a balcony above us were a few string players, singers, and the announcer. To our right, fireworks just outside the quadra competed with the bateria. And in the center, group after group of outrageously costumed performers paraded. Most of the pageantry, from an adorable 9-year-old girl samba-ing like crazy, to the Las Vegas–type show girls in g-strings and elaborate headgear, flaunted their wares in green and yellow, the colors of the Mocidade Samba school—one of the more traditional ones in Rio.

The most moving part, however, came at the beginning, when scores of grandmas formed a single line circle, each one shuffling along in her own remembered Samba. (They’re called the Velha Guardia, the old guardians.) They’ve lived the Samba every year. It’s in their bodies, and the bateria brings it out.

Next morning we drove to the base of the Maré favela (population about 132,000) and entered a vast, gutted warehouse about a city block long. At the far end was a group of gorgeously diverse dancers looking like they were improvising on a Marley-type floor. In fact they were doing Lia Rodrigues’  precisely counted choreography for a new version of her Pororoca, which is the word for the aquatic turmoil that happens where the river meets the sea. In silence (with only counting) the 10 dancers swirled around each other, whipping, swatting, and leap-frogging. If you looked at the whole, you saw whirlpools of rushing water; if you looked at each dancer, you saw vivid personalities.

Lia Rodrigues' Pororoca, photo by Sammi Landweer, courtesy Rodrigues.

Behind the curtain at the left was an equally huge space with a dirt floor. Rodrigues, who has worked with Maguy Marin and continues to perform in France, plans to transform that half into a school for the community. This building is the first cultural center of the area. Like many of the choreographers I visited, Rodrigues believes in what she calls the “synergy between art and social process.”

Colker's Tatyana, photo by Leo Aversa, courtesy Colker.

For an entirely different experience, we visited the well established Deborah Colker Movement Center, a handsome building that contains six studios and offers classes from ballet to hip hop to Pilates. Colker was rehearsing for Tatyana, her take on the Onegin story, in a large studio with a huge “tree” sculpture by Gringo Cardia. Her highly trained dancers climbed on, and hung from, the tree sculpture. There were ingenious bits, for example a duel fought with poking canes and slamming fans. Like all of Colker's past big pieces, Tatyana will run nightly in Rio’s João Caetano Theater for two months this spring, and then it opens the Edinburgh festival in August. In the fall the company goes on a North American tour.

 

Next city: Campinas, about 60 miles northwest of São Paulo

The next morning I took Holly’s class at the University of Campinas (right), joining fresh-faced youngsters avid to learn, like any other dance department—except this is a free university where you have to audition to get in. With her long and varied experience as a dancer and teacher, Holly began the class in partners—with massage work (ahhh)—and ended with a dynamic, full-bodied phrase. After class I watched a few wonderful student pieces, some clever, some gutsy.

 

Then we drove to downtown Campinas to see a rehearsal of Holly’s own company, Dominio Publico (Public Domain), in, well, in public (left). Her four skilled dancers used touch, voice, humor and inexhaustible energy to give passersby a real experience. A random skateboarder whizzed through them, at first following but then leading them in circles. This all took place in a church plaza that also had a budding encampment of Occupy Wall Street in it. (Apparently at a later rehearsal, one of the occupiers joined in with the dancers.)

That night we went to a health club in Campinas to see a rehearsal of the hip hop group Eclipse. Popping, voguing, whacking, they plunged into partner work, flipping each other up high and landing with a thud. They don’t often get to rehearse with a matted floor, so they really went to town. A couple of the guys practiced gasp-worthy tricks, and all had great movement quality. The four women had spunk but, as with many hip hop groups, didn’t have the physical power that the men did. Eclipse sponsors an annual “Battle of the Year” in Campinas, where this year 27 groups came from all over South America. Eclipse also tours to hip hop festivals, including in Los Angeles.

Grupo Eclipse

The next morning I gave a lecture with DVDs on different approaches to contemporary dance. Not surprisingly the most lively response came when I showed Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas Danst Rosas and then Beyoncé’s music video Countdown. YouTube is everywhere so these students knew all about that controversy about Beyoncé’s “sampling” of the choreography and look from de Keersmaeker’s film. It was good timing because Rosas was about to perform in São Paolo the following week.

That afternoon we took a long, getting-lost-often ride on a bumpy dirt road surrounded by beautiful hills and skinny cows. Finally we arrived at the home studio of Graziela Rodrigues, a faculty colleague of Holly’s at Unicamp who had spent much time in the Amazon. We saw three ritualistic solos for three different women, drawn from life in the Amazon as Graziela had observed it. In the first, a woman presses a baby doll to her bare breast to signify a woman’s attachment to a baby that has died. The second was about a woman laboring on a coffee plantation, to beautiful music by Hector Villa Lobos. The third was related to Candomblé, which came out of slave culture. Danced by Larissa Turtelli with powerful intensity and drama, the dance circles around a flame in the center of the space. She hissed, shimmied, and finally dampened the fires. Although Graziela has written that she’s interested in “marginal bodies,” she relied on the dancers’ body to tell their stories.

Third city: São Paulo

On our first night in the largest city in South America, we went to Teatro Sérgio Cardosa to see São Paulo Companhia de Dança, a new ballet company. Considering the group is only three years old and doesn’t have a school, I was surprised at how good the dancers were and how interesting the rep was: Balanchine, Nacho Duato, and Marco Goecke. (Here’s my review). Ask anyone in the São Paulo dance community how this was accomplished and they will tell you: money. Someone in the ministry of culture wanted São Paulo to have its own ballet company modeled after The Royal Ballet. (The city of Rio has had a ballet company for many decades.) According to Dr. Helena Katz, the most prominent dance writer in São Paulo, three years ago this company was granted 15 million reais (about 8 million U.S. dollars), leaving only 2 million reais (about 1.1 million dollars) for all other dance groups in the state of São Paulo. Naturally, there was plenty of grumbling, and the most recent grants have been less polarizing. Still, this young ballet company has resources that smaller groups can’t even dream of. Many of the artists I visited were on the edge of survival.

We entered a enchanted world when we dropped by the Cia Soma, the home of the traditions of Antonio Nóbrega, a legendary performer who combines circus, music, dance, and puppetry of Brazilian culture. Covering every inch of the walls were photos of Nóbrega and other traditional Brazilian performers, plus swatches of lace in framed collages, miniature panoramas in boxes (à la Joseph Cornell), and ancient woodcuts. This is part of a 20-year-old heritage project that strives to recapture the traditions of Brazilian folk theater. The puppet wagon, stage curtains, and costumes are hand-stitched from colorful old fabrics. It was moving to see two young women carry on the traditions. A class of young children watched their puppet antics and Loie Fuller–like skirt dance with delight. Afterward one of the women showed me a bit of the Brazilian folk dance frevo, with steps named after everyday items like scissors and screw.

Perhaps the most enthralling dancing came from Morena Nascimento, who has worked with Pina Bausch. She rehearsed at the charming Cineclube Crisantempo, a small theater with adjoining a café and large dance studio upstairs (where we saw Zelia Monteiro give a somatic-influenced ballet class). A gorgeous mover, Morena devised a partnership with pianist Benjamin Taubkin, in which they, at times, sit back-to-back on the piano bench. Her sensuous, gestural movements were captivating. At one point she crawled under the piano while Benjamin continued to play. When she resumed dancing, it was with a sharper rhythm and attack from both of them. The piece ends with a black-and-while film of the two of them just talking about their work. I think her aim was to create a dialogue between music and dance, but the most stunning aspect was her dancing.

Morena Nascimento with pianist Benjamin Taubkin.

Our final destination was a garage studio shared by Diogo Granato and Nova Dança. You walk though an alley to get to the studio. At the far end is glass instead of a wall, through which you can see a garden, and beyond that a little yoga studio. Diogo, who has danced with Nova Dança for 15 years, branched out with his own group, Silensiosas + GT’aime, which has performed in subways, streets, and airports. This night the improvisation with five dancers and three musicians was so subtle, so daring, so in tune with each other that it struck me as the best group improvisation I’ve seen since the legendary Grand Union in the early 1970s. Their movement was sprinkled with contact improv, clowning techniques, samba, and parkour. Turns out they’ve done workshops with Steve Paxton, Lisa Nelson, and Nancy Stark Smith. No wonder the contact was so fearless and the group awareness so sophisticated! And when Diogo engaged us in “audience participation,” I confess I couldn’t resist and joined in—rather recklessly, I’m afraid.

Silensiosas + GT'aime, photo by Haroldo Saboia, courtesy Silensiosas.

My pal and guide, Holly Cavrell, grew up in NYC but has been teaching in Brazil for 22 years. She’s a pillar of the dance community there. What she arranged for me to see was just a sliver of the dance in Brazil (and there was even more to our week-long adventure that I couldn’t fit in here). This blog is sort of a continuation of the chock-full article that Holly wrote on Brazil for Dance Magazine five years ago.

Like the colorful tile mosaics all over Brazil, Holly created for me a mosaic of current Brazilian dance.

Pixabay

It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.

—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy ROH

Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers & Companies
Nisian Hughes

"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"

Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.

Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers & Companies
via Rebels on Pointe

You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.

A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
LINES dancer Courtney Henry. Photo by Quinn Wharton

We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.

But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.

A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.

Keep reading... Show less
Training
Laurel Jenkins, Photo by Vincent Beaume

Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.

So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
AXIS's Lani Dickinson and James Bowen. Photo by Matt Evearitt, courtesy AXIS

After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.

By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Jim Lafferty for Pointe

You know that how you care for your body before curtain can impact your performance. But with so many factors to consider, it can be difficult to nail down an exact routine. How much rest is enough? How close to showtime should you eat? We asked the experts.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
screenshot via Jonathan Simkhai.

How do you make your athleisure collection stand out from the pack? Get the ultimate studio-to-street seal of approval by having dancers star in your campaign, of course.

For his second collaboration with activewear brand Carbon38, ready-to-wear designer Jonathan Simkhai traded in his usual top models like Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss for the original Hiplet dancers—and the resulting video is as cool as we'd expect from such a fierce collaboration.

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
Emily Schoen and Houcem Bouakroucha, Photo by TuniStudio

Again and again, dance teaches me that when the filters fall away between people—when the boundaries of geography, religion and politics soften—the beginning and end of our relationships is always human.

In March, I traveled with Keigwin + Company to Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tunisia, on a tour sponsored by the US State Department and facilitated by DanceMotion USA/Brooklyn Academy of Music. Our mission was cultural diplomacy: Simply, to share ourselves with diverse communities, to promote common understanding and friendships.

Our last stop was Tunisia. Until that point, we had mostly been learning varieties of traditional African dance, and sharing American modern dance. But Tunisia was different. The dancers already had a solid grasp of contemporary movement invention. Though we didn't speak the same language, we could make movement vocabulary with surprising ease. Everything about our backgrounds was different, but there was this special intersection through dance that seemed to present an open door to collaboration.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!