The Kennedy Center
April 27-29, 1999
Reviewed by Judith Lynne Hanna
Figural, Antônio Nóbrega’s sixty-minute solo, showcases with beauty and charm the culture of Brazil’s Northeast. Rich, diversely kaleidoscopic expressions reflect Indian, African, and European influences.
Nóbrega at forty-six is an exceptional powerhouse of talent who takes his cues from commedia dell’arte and his own native Brazilian dance, capoeira, music, and myth, and especially from the popular street performers of his home city, Recife, in Pernambuco State. Starting as a musician, Nóbrega became a composer, singer, mime, circus artist (acrobat, juggler, improviser, celebrant), dancer, choreographer, humorist, and director. At the University of Campinas, he helped create the dance department and taught Brazilian dance. With his actress wife and partner, Rosane, he created the Brinante Theater and School, a small cultural center where the couple rehearses, presents its shows, and promotes events and courses about Brazil.
Figural, a tour de force phantasmagoria of animal and human archetypes, is one of the first pieces for which Nóbrega choreographed and wrote both the accompanying music and text. He also incorporates the music of Antonio José Madureira, Vincente Celestino, and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. Romero de Andrade Lima designed the intriguing costumes and masks. The U.S. premiere of this multimedia composition begins with Nóbrega singing in a strong, resonant tenor while accompanying himself on guitar, and, like a street musician, he walks barefoot down the Terrace Theater aisle and onto the stage. A large trunk sits to one side of the stage, and strewn across the floor are costumes Nóbrega puts on to portray different characters. Once onstage, he strips to his briefs, puts on brown tights with white spots and a mask as the audience hears the sounds of a tropical forest punctuated with bird calls. Graceful and light footed, he appears monkey- or gazelle-like in startling handstands, crouches, cartwheels, leaps, jumps, and vibrations.
Nóbrega puts on the ragged dress and cloak of a hunched old woman with a six-foot walking stick. He dances her protruding buttocks’ side-to-side lolling motion as well as her finger and toe articulation. Again he undresses, placing the costume in the trunk, and becomes a cattleman in red pants, wide belt, and gold velvet cape.
The next vignette sees Nóbrega in a skirt, twelve-inch cone-like breasts, and a wig with a long braid. Brazil has felt the tentacles of elite European and popular American culture. Vainly gazing into a mimed mirror, the sensuous “she” performs the fast footwork of the spirited frevo dance and a drunken bourrée to Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers.” Undressing after portraying a priestess, Nóbrega dons black tights, a red midriff jacket, black hat, and mask, transforming himself into a juggler who plays with a ball while contracting and releasing his abdominal muscles. He begins to elicit feedback from the audience. In a flounced and fringed red gown and mask accenting the mouth, a “woman” plays the accordion and sings off-key, parodying a French chanteuse. The shrill shrew harangues each half of the audience to sing part of the song. She scolds the accommodating audience to do it correctly.
As Nóbrega changes into red polka-dot shorts, torn shirt, and trousers, he coyly points to his genital bulge. He has become Tonheta, his most popular character from Brazilian television. Chattering away, he then says, “I’d like a female creature to introduce me to this audience.” When there are no volunteers, he asks for the house lights and goes into the audience, warning that averting their eyes will make them more likely candidates. He selects a young woman, brings her onstage, and the two have charming, funny interplay.
A master musician, dramatist, and actor/dancer, Nóbrega calls his characters “short illuminations from the trunk of the collective mind.” His performances at the Kennedy Center were his only U.S. performances.
Dance Magazine has reviewed Antônio Nóbrega’s rare performances in January 1990 (p. 79) and April 1993 (p. 72).