When a big white umbrella with a small hem was brought bobbing in a Brazilian dancer's hands onto the Publick Playhouse's stage Friday night, no one booed as had part of the Rio de Janeiro audience in 1963 for a similar parasol strut in a U.S. gospel work, Alvin Ailey's "Revelations." The Ailey company, making its Brazilian debut, was presenting a piece that had wowed viewers at home and in Europe, but the folks in Rio imagined that "Yankees" were stealing their dancing. We've all learned a lot about ethnic spread and the theatrical imagination in the intervening years, and much of the enjoyment of watching Dance Brazil's single performance in the Washington area came from spotting what was and wasn't like the African roots in our own traditions.
Some passages of the samba that the men do have the trill and compactness of U.S. tap dancing, though there aren't any metal plates or shoes. And the women, flouncing on in their bell-shaped gowns, move at first like Scarlett's set entering the ballroom at Tara. Then, though, the Brazilian rhythms start and can't be stopped.
The samba can fool you for a short while into thinking it hails from northern cultures, but the beat of religious Candomble ceremonies and of a harvest dance like the maculele never do. The accents are sudden and sharp and never let go of the performer's body. The frame quivers regularly, not just when shaking is the dominant movement, but even in turns and balances. This seems much closer to African origins than any dancing that survived into the 20th century in North America.
Still another style is capoeira, the defensive acrobatics developed by African slaves in Brazil that may be an example of convergent evolution with Far Eastern fight dance forms. The performers turn cartwheels and somersaults, and dance upside down standing on their hands. They also use leg extensions combatively. What makes this dance and not just sport are its dynamic variety and the supple uses of the torso. These aren't purely utilitarian.
Brazil is a big country and Dance Brazil, being a small troupe of about 15 dancers and musicians, has wisely focused on the African among the diverse traditions of that land. There are no production numbers, but the choreographic arrangements (by artistic director Jelon Vieira, his assistant Nem Brito and ballet master J.C.A. Apolo) are potent, as is the musical performance of Brazilian percussion and friction instruments of the "membrane" and string sorts.