Pied pipers of Brazil

Brazilian dancers have Laxson crowd dancing in the street

AND SHAKE IT ALL ABOUT Brazil’s 38-member Bahia dance ensemble elicited “roars of approval” from a stoked Chico audience.

AND SHAKE IT ALL ABOUT Brazil’s 38-member Bahia dance ensemble elicited “roars of approval” from a stoked Chico audience.

Photo By Tom Angel

Brazil’s professional folk dance company, Balà Folclorico da Bahia, began its riveting two-hour performance at Laxson Auditorium with a striking tableau of arrested movement and ululating sound entitled “Dança de Origem,” or “Origin Dance.”

Red, smoky light bathed a stage full of dancers and musicians arranged in a perfectly balanced suspension of poses, with dancers poised on one another’s shoulders and backs, holding legs in impossible extensions and contortions, as a clear, rising cascade of tonal incantations filled the stage for a full minute. Drumbeats began to interplay with the vocal thread, and the dancers were one by one summoned by the beats into an intricate, flowing rhythm.

This dance tells the story of the creation of the universe, according to the African slave religion Candomble, which was introduced to Brazil during the colonial period (16th-17th centuries). In Bahia, in Northern Brazil, this religious belief continues to teach that “Oxala, the Supreme God, with his sons, formed the universe from a mixture of sacred powder and water.” The dance itself embraced this concept with slithering movements across the floor, growing into headstands, arrow-releasing arm gestures and perfectly coordinated gyrational isolations of torsos, limbs and heads, interspersed with African barrel rolls and footwork.

Chico Performances presented this pulse-racing joy of an evening, part of its Bridging Our World series, with a 38-member Bahia ensemble that included 17 dancers, five men on percussion—consisting of congas, cymbals, snare and a tall stringed instrument called a berimbau that defied the imagination—a flute/sax player, bass, trombone, trompete and keyboard/acordeon players, plus two phenomenal vocalists.

The world-renowned company has been dazzling audiences across the globe since its inception in 1988 by General Director Walson Botelho, who is also a dancer, choreographer and cultural anthropologist.

Training in modern, ballet and Afro-Brazilian dance collided with gymnastics, martial arts and broad physical comedy. The dexterity, exhilaration, otherworldly skill and athleticism displayed by every member of the company, who all performed barefoot (with the exception of the lead vocalist, Dora Santana, who wore gold-lamà stilettos under her sparkly gold muumuu) actually moved me to tears. Combining the influences of African slave dances and songs, Portuguese language and movement and native Brazilian, this ain’t your mama’s folk dancin'!

Performing straight through, without an intermission, the troupe continued with “Puxada de Rede” ("Fisherman’s Dance"), which began with a single dancer floating on stage like a petal swirling in a river current. Dressed in a huge hoop skirt made of gossamer fabric, with a headdress obscuring facial features completely, the powerful, slow, hypnotic vocal harmonies of the two singers, and throbbing drum, buoyed the dancer, who represented Lemanja, goddess of the sea. The rest of the dancers, wearing simple white cotton, mimed hand-fishing movements, with sensual rolling hips, as men sat like rocks with big straw hats, scattered across the stage.

Musician Fa’bio Santos commanded the stage with his astounding berimbau solo, coaxing an array of sound, volume and tonal quality out of an instrument that looked like a large upright bow, which he played by teasing the string percussively with a small reed and nimble fingers. Santos’ music was a perfect segue into the unbelievable precision of the martial-art piece, “Capoeira,” which brought gasps and cheers from the audience as dancers faced off in a series of alternating, blurringly quick, spinning, head-high kicks that grazed one another’s eyebrows, defying belief.

The evening culminated in a carnival piece called “Affixire,” showcasing gravity-defying aerials and gymnastic contortions that brought the audience to its feet in roars of approval. Just as we thought it was all over, too soon, “Samba Reggae” brought the dancers into the house, the musicians leading the huge party up the aisle and into the warm night air, where we danced and celebrated in the street outside the theater.

It was the perfect ending to one of the most memorable live performances I have ever had the privilege to attend.