Culture shock can be a positive experience, as was the case Saturday night at George Mason University's Center for the Arts. Brazil's only professional folk dance company, Bale Folclorico da Bahia, performed with a level of energy, enthusiasm and abandon not often seen in North American dance, folk or otherwise.
Formed in 1988 by director and choreographer Walson Botelho, the group presents music and dance that reflect the unique cultural mix in Brazil. The African influence is obvious: Throughout the program were the fluid torsos, vibrating hips and whipping of the head common on the African continent. In the piece "Afixire," one of the dancers pulled onstage an audience member who happened to be versed in African dance, and it was clear they were speaking the same language.
Indigenous traditions and those of the Portuguese colonizers were also present. The opening work, "Boi-Bumba," choreographed by Amelia Conrado, told a story of crime and punishment complemented by magical creatures and supreme beings from Brazil's aboriginal people of the Northeast. The spectacle onstage had the air of Carnaval throughout; incredible feathered headdresses by Ricardo Biriba added about two feet to the height of the dancers.
"Maracatu Rural," also costumed by Biriba, began with orange, blue and silver beings that Dr. Seuss might have dreamed of. With heads enlarged by huge pompoms, they danced with long sticks covered in the same plastic fringe and calf-length fringed tunics. The piece is a reenactment of the crowning of black kings, with a jab at the pomposity of colonial royalty.
Highlights of the program included "Maculele" and "Capoeira." In the first, male dancers in pairs alternated impressive kicks and quick spins with striking the stick of their opponent in a very masculine and thrilling form of patty-cake. "Capoeira" showed signature moves from this Brazilian martial arts form, including controlled dives to the floor and freezes that have been incorporated in the United States into break dancing and hip-hop.
Fortunately, there were quiet moments for the live musical ensemble that served as a respite from the circus of movement, color and rhythm. Singers Dora Santana and Miralva Couto, looking resplendent in African headdresses, were backed by saxophone, trumpet trombone, flute and, of course, drums.