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Dancing, not combat: Nego Gato.

Real Fierce Cats

By Mae G. Banner

Nego Gato

The Egg, May 12

A stunning display of capoeira whipped the audience into a frenzy at the climax of Nego Gatoís concert, From Africa to Brazil, last Friday (May 12) at the Egg. Five men performed in shifting pairs, like tag teams, launching powerful kicks to their partnersí heads or evading the blows by flipping out of range.

Capoeira is a martial art disguised as danceóa necessary subterfuge for the men brought from the Congo to work as slaves in colonial Brazil. Acrobatic in the extreme, it looks like a combination of breakdancing and kick-boxing. The handstands and head spins, the series of traveling flips (sometimes not even touching the ground) and the hieroglyphic shapes of jutting arms and legs look artful and dangerous at the same time, while the ferocious, swinging kicks look like they could whack off an opponentís head.

No fear, though. Partners worked so smoothly together that the potentially fatal blows never landed, but sliced the air a whiskerís width from their target. Capoeira is entanglement without touching.

The taller men seemed to move in slow motion, especially when they executed full-body flips. Shorter men could move faster, allowing for rapid-fire sets of flips that showed their strength and agility.

Capoeira is accompanied by the music of the berimbau, which enslaved Afro- Brazilians added to complete the deception. The instrument is remarkable in its simplicity. Itís a stringed gourd that is hit, not bowed with a small stick. Sometimes, a small gourd rattle hangs from its neck. The sound is an evocative buzz that provides melody and rhythm at one stroke.

The berimbau, the lute-like kora (originally from West Africa) and an array of drums accompanied the program, which was arranged by Nego Gatoís founder and artistic director Jose Sena as a timeline from African religious dance to modern street samba. Sena, aka Nego Gato (black cat), is from Salvador in the province of Bahia. As a performer and choreographer, he honors tradition, but he also banters casually with his fellow drummers and reaches out to the audience, asking us to clap in rhythm or to pick up the African or Portuguese words of a song.

After a brief samba overture, company members appeared, one by one, in the shape of the orixas, the god-like forces of nature. Each orixa wore the color and head-dress of a deity and carried a symbol of that forceís domain. Oxum, who represents fresh water, beauty and femininity, wore a silvery satin gown and carried two paddles that she swung as she traveled the stage. She knelt, facing forward, arched her back and bent way back as if possessed, letting her arms trace sinuous shapes in the air.

Ogum, ruler of war, metal and technology, was in royal blue with a Roman helmet and a stylized sword. He circled and jumped, demonstrating his power and skill. Yansa, in fiery red, danced demonically fast, whipping her straw whisk and constantly changing direction as mistress of the storm winds. Finally, there was Shango, ruler of justice, possessor of fire, who danced to increasingly agitated drumming.

All 10 members of the company took part in a mime-like dance depicting the fishermen of Bahia. The fishing dance seemed to be an old history, preserved in the dancersí bodies. So, too, was the maculele, a martial dance that celebrates the harvesting of sugar cane. It looked improvised and casual, but the dancers and drummers were clearly listening and responding to each other, adding ever more complicated rhythmic layers.

Fode Sissoko, a guest artist from Senegal, played a beautiful interlude on the kora. Singer Sylvana Marquina, from Argentina, introduced the final samba, all glitter and hip-swaying. In keeping with Nego Gatoís interactive style, dancers began moving into the aisles and enticing willing audience members to join them onstage. In no time, the stage filled with people of all ages, all of them shimmying in their own ways to the samba beat. Itís a fact that everybody looks great under stage light.

To make the evening complete, we all stood up, waved our arms and swung our hips, succumbing to the urge to merge with the dancers. The feeling of common joy was palpable and the audience went home energized.

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