This week, DanceBrazil mixed culture and art to bring the spirit of Brazil to life at the Joyce Theater, New York. More specifically, the show celebrated Bahia, the Brazilian state known for capoeira and samba, and the birthplace of many of the company’s dancers.

DanceBrazil's Batuke © Eileen Travell
DanceBrazil's Batuke
© Eileen Travell

Choreographer and founder Jelon Vieira is able to blend both capoeira and samba on stage, despite the fact that neither one was originally intended for such a formal setting. Capoeira developed as a way to disguise practicing martial arts skills in colonial Brazil. Although samba is a dance and music genre, it is a good style to mix with capoeira. Both use the music of the berimbau, a stringed percussion instrument, played live.

Live music is an integral part of the performance. In the first piece, Batuke, the women begin with grounded, languid steps. Their bright blue skirts twist around their hips like Carnival dancers. The musicians pick up the tempo until the dancers’ feet skim the floor – hips, shoulders, and torso moving to different rhythms. The name Batuke comes from the sounds made from making music by beating any non-traditional surface. The men’s maculelé section emphasizes this point as they dance with arms wide, wooden sticks in each fist. Dips and leaps are punctuated by the sharp crack of the sticks colliding and hitting the floor.

The second piece, Imfazwe, is more directly inspired by capoeira: the title even means war in Xhosa (a language spoken in South Africa). Traditionally, two people face off against each other, surrounded by a circle of people. The basic back-and-forth step (ginga) is laced with kicks and acrobatics. Vieira bends the rules, however, to set opposing dancers far apart so that their attacks and counters are softened by the space between them. At times, two people dance in unison, nearly touching one another but squared up against the audience. Again, live music plays a big part in making the movement feel authentic. These moves were not created for dancers to set them to counts and hold their spacing, all of the elements are supposed to be improvised. Live musicians connect to the dancers and both feed off the tension between them.

The company’s athleticism is fantastic throughout the show. Except for a few brief moments of calm, the pace of the music is relentless. Even when the movement slows, the dancers don’t get to rest. They reject gravity, inverting their weight from their feet to their hands in shapes that only seem possible under water. While the performance is clearly an amalgamation of techniques, there are times when the intentions behind a move are clearly not based in dance. When the force behind a kick spins the dancer’s whole body in one motion, it’s obvious that this move was meant to be used against an opponent. Vieira gives a nod to his company’s unique training as the lights fade on them, fists raised semi-defensively, shrugging their shoulders as though loosening up for a fight.

***11