Light diffused across the stage of the Irvine Barclay Theatre to reveal members of DanceBrazil standing against a blue background, dressed in white. Their heads were tilted down and turned slightly to one side; a muscular arm crossed each breast in varying shades of brown. The figures seemed ensnared by their own powerful stances, and collectively, they emitted a trance which soon emanated out into the audience. Then, a series of movements began to unfold in unison, puncturing the spell, and curved arms formed architectural friezes as torsos and legs remained vertical. Tall turns were punctuated by a rising percussive beat in Tote Gira’s score, and as movement and music played out almost cinematically before the colored scrim, I sank into my seat, satisfied.
Enter capoeiristas. Suddenly what had been upright and formal was slithering and functional: heads became fulcra and two men shifted in unison from balancing on their right temples to the crowns of their heads, then astonishingly to their left temples as well. Recalling the yoga class I had taken earlier in the day, I reprimanded myself for bemoaning inwardly the difficulty of a lunge. Legs skimmed sideways in huge arcs as the movers swept themselves across the stage and into encounters resembling the slow-motion bullet-dodging moves of The Matrix, or the confident attempts which often result in near misses in early romantic involvements. Somehow, body parts entangled in midair without touching. I began to suspect they used magic.
I was not far off. According to my program, mandinga is a term used in capoeira to designate the magic of deceit, of duping one’s opponent with “fakes, balances, speed and acrobatic movements.” This technique is a characteristic of Banguela, the work’s title and the interlude, or rhythmic break, utilized in a capoeira circle. A glimpse of mandinga recurred later in the glint of a female soloist’s eye as her long legs carried her regally across the stage. And once again, although this might have just been me, when the male dancers finally entered the stage without shirts. In general, Jorge Alberto’s costumes were cumbersome, although his role must have been difficult: the dancers would have looked best without any clothing on at all.
The second work on the program, Fé Do Sertão, a premiere, immediately distinguished Banguela as light. Its gravity was apparent from the curtain’s gloomy ascent. The company squatted low, their bodies thrown upstage left like scattered dice, with heads heavy in their hands. I wondered if they were in mourning, hiding, or seeking respite from fatigue or misfortune. I did not need to know Portuguese to be able to understand that the words chanted within Marquinho Carvalho’s music communicated hardship of some kind.
Yet there was a rising force in the work, and the pain of it was soon lost in the rushing current of pure movement, the sheer physicality and nuance of which transcended any obvious emotion. Choreography, in its compositional, structural aspect, interrupted the work’s seemingly unstoppable flow to bring us a few memorable moments. One was a duet danced by a man and a woman who flung herself into circling lifts with enough centrifugal force that she could have leapt offstage. That dancer, among several others, including her partner and one dude with incredible dreads, was a pleasure to watch throughout the evening. Her power was reigned in by a supple control; her presence matter-of-factly acknowledging her strength. Indeed, by the time the full company launched into a celebratory folk dance—presumably relating to harvest—the work’s initial gravitas could almost be forgotten. Here, the capoeiristas performed their most impressive feats thus far, turning backflips like coins or a hat effortlessly tossed about in one’s hand. There was a quality of one-upping each other, and yet the competitiveness was a joyous testament to the rowdiness of true celebration.
As I noticed a pattern moving from light to dark and back to light again, I also began inadvertently placing a slight disparity between “Dance” and “Brazil” within the work, despite the fact that no space exists between those two words in the group’s name. Dance I characterized as upright sections in unison; Brazil was the slick floorbound or catapulting work of the capoeiristas. Certain choreographed sections seemed to lack the finesse and fullness that the capoeira sections were steeped in. Also, in the program members of the cast were identified as either Dancers or Capoeiristas.
But perhaps the dancers and the dance were no less “Brazil” for their differing designations. Certainly Brazil is big enough for these two forms of movement and the stage of the Barclay was as well. A cultural dance company need not confine itself to a single style; it was refreshing to witness a new conversation, collaboration, or perhaps syncretism occurring before me onstage. As for their moniker, from now on I’ll be apt to regard DanceBrazil as a single word with many meanings, rather than as two distinct nouns smashed up against one another. For a complete definition of the term? See them live.