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L.A. folkloric troupes take novel new steps

Do Brasil and Viver Brasil explore fresh ideas about their ethnic roots. Vocals and percussion add drama.

June 28, 2004|Sara Wolf | Special to The Times

Angelenos have reason to be proud. Their city's two top Brazilian dance troupes, Do Brasil and Viver Brasil, have garnered well-deserved reputations for festive celebrations to which adjectives such as "colorful" and "dynamic" easily apply.

And although the two differ in strengths and interests, concerts by each over the weekend made it clear that they share an ambition to push folkloric dance presentation in novel directions. In doing so, each is exploring fresh ideas about cultural representation.

Take, for example, the matter of enacting the initial contact among the ethnic groups -- African, indigenous and European -- that gave rise to the nation's rich musical and dance traditions.

In Do Brasil's "Besouro," at California Plaza on Thursday night, artistic director Amen Santo backed up the cultural fusion script to begin the story on the shores of the Senegalese island of Goree, where captured Africans departed on slave ships for the New World.

Based on Santo's ethnographic research on Goree, the suite of dances opened with high-energy displays of the Senegalese traditional dance form saba by female ensemble members and a mock wrestling competition between the men. The Atlantic crossing took shape through mournful seated rowing motions and the taped accompaniment of soulful Brazilian vocalist Gilberto Gil.

Viver Brasil, on the other hand, opened "Legends of Brazil" at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre on Saturday night with "Indigena" (performed by Dani Lunn, Kimberly Miguel Mullen, Jordan Eboreime, Katiana Rush and Mariana Ibrahin), in which percussive marching and arm jabs by Amazonians established who was where first.

Into this scene arrived the Portuguese (Phillip McAbee), a haunting authoritative presence in the background, and Africa, personified in an ebullient solo by Jameelah McMillan. Here the conjoining of people and traditions took place between Lunn and McMillan, culminating in a graceful pose indicating unity blessed by a priestly McAbee.

By contrast, Do Brasil's Santo maintained the African protagonists' perspective throughout the first part of "Besouro," with his young, somewhat green, ensemble representing various orixas (male and female deities) of the candomble religion that (as the program informed the audience) guided and protected the slaves in their journey and new home.

Stilted by earnestness, and looking under-rehearsed, the suite nevertheless displayed an adventuresome exploration of vocabulary, freely recombined to communicate expressively.

Not until the second half of the program did the pace pick up with a powerful maculele stick dance by the 10-member ensemble and a show-stopping display of the martial art-cum-dance form capoeira -- airborne rocket spins, endless flips and inverted jackknife kicks -- by capoeiristas from Australia, Canada and across the United States.

In "Legends," Viver Brasil choreographer Rosangela Silvestre mixed traditional and contemporary dance idioms with finesse. Here too orixas were invoked (and performed with command by Mullen, Rush, McAbee and Olivia Harewood) and capoeira masters honored (by Marco "Gibi" dos Santos and Velly Bahia) as part of a seamless parade. But the multipart suite also included lighthearted tributes to such pop cultural icons as soccer star Pele and comedic 1940s movie star Carmen Miranda. Even Heloisa Eneida Pinto, the beachcombing inspiration for Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova classic, "The Girl from Ipanema," took a lyrical turn in a solo by Harewood.

Both shows were strengthened by vocals -- by Rennie Flores for Do Brasil and Sonia Santos for Viver Brasil -- and the heart of Afro-Brazilian dance: spirit-shaking percussion.

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