When ‘Wow!’ is all there is

March 24, 2012

Broad Street Review

DanceBrazil offered its high-octane, multicultural feast of dance from three continents in its latest return to the Zellerbach stage. Although passport issues delayed the company’s arrival to the U.S. until 4 a.m. of their opening day, these dozen young dance veterans tossed off such travails much the way their Capoeira flying kicks on stage whipped the air.

The Brazilian choreographer Jelon Vieira, who formed DanceBrazil in 1977, drew in this performance on dance forms from his own country as well as Africa and Western modern dance to create an entertaining mix of athleticism and unison movement. This was a program designed to wow the audience, not to provide great depth or meaning.

Batuke (2010), derived from the term describing the sounds of nontraditional instruments used during Carnival, is strongest in its African-derived sections: Four women with white skirts over light blue dresses, to the sounds of bells and then drums, flow their way across the floor, bending their torsos at the waist parallel to the floor— or, closer to the floor, extend their hands in gestures suggesting cupping water or planting seeds.

Meanwhile, men in colorful skirts perform a stick dance (maculele) that could have been derived from men wielding machetes in a cane field. The dance is simple and repetitive, as the men alternate, with bowed heads and hip wiggles, holding the sticks frontally, to the sides and occasionally striking them with partners in jumps.

Vieira’s newest work, Infazwe, a world premiere, is a more cohesive piece that explores more tonal ranges and better integrates Capoeira, the African dance/martial arts form that evolved in colonial Brazil as a means of resisting enslavement, disguised as dance. Capoeira’s lyrical ferocity through arcing spaces does appear intermittently in Infazwe, but it’s decidedly subsumed amidst the theatrical display.

Beyond its entertainment value, one does wonder what is lost when indigenous dance forms like Capoeira are uprooted onto a proscenium stage. The seated and silent audience negates the participatory cross-currents of audience and performers that’s inherent in these forms; the canned music, however loud and high-energy, rules out the spontaneous interplay of dancer and musician; and the occasionally suggested connections to spiritual traditions like the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé are largely lost. A cultural feast is meant not only for the eyes or tongue but also for the soul.♦

Broad Street Review