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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.

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