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Power and grace: members of DanceBrazil.

Culturally Terrific
By Mae G. Banner

The Egg, July 13

Jelon Vieira, choreographer and capoeirista, makes dances that weave anthropology with theater. His DanceBrazil, a troupe of eight dancers, four martial-arts men and four musicians, celebrated aspects of Bahian culture in a rousing performance Sunday at the Egg in Albany.

The full-evening dance, Camará (1997), shows the comradeship that unites battling capoeiristas, even as one swings a lethal leg at another’s head. The stylized martial art, which Vieira says is “camouflaged by dance,” is marked by speed, stealth, grace, agility and daring, all of which were plentifully displayed in the final sequence of Camará.

Seven men moved in and out of a loose circle in a series of one-on-one challenges that featured arcing legs, mirror-image kicks, quick springs and dizzying turns. When a man was actually knocked down, his assailant backed off immediately and joined the now-reproachful circle. Their body stance said, “You battle, but you must not cause harm.”

It’s always a dicey game when real life is choreographed as theater. What used to be called “ethnic” dance troupes—they’re now called “culturally specific”—rearrange free-form, unpolished village dances or temple rites for the proscenium stage, trying to keep their cultural flavor while holding the interest of an unschooled audience of outsiders.

Troupes like DanceBrazil, founded in 1977, must be wary of falling into either of two traps. If their dances are too “inward,” rather than presentational, the audience may feel shut out and lose interest. On the other hand, if the dances are too blatantly colorful and overchoreographed, they may look kitschy and fake.

In Camará, Vieira kept things simple. The evening was a series of vignettes, each focusing on an aspect of Bahian culture. Two guitarists and two percussionists in the orchestra pit set the tone with a soft, twanging samba that evoked the sea. The lead singer induced a willing audience to join him in the call-and-response chorus.

Only then, after we all were in the right mood, did the curtain go up on a solemn scene of Candomblé rites. Four women in wide sea-blue skirts with tentlike white overskirts blessed the dancing ground with holy water, while a man shook a gourd strung with shells. This ritual established the Afro-Brazilian connection that informed the whole dance.

As the percussionists beat a polyrhythmic samba, eight dancers leapt onstage, bodies bent nearly horizontal and lyrical arms rising. They did jump turns and cartwheels, their overskirts billowing like sails in a full wind. Now, the barefoot capoeiristas entered to perform slow-motion handstands and cartwheels in counterpoint to the fast dancing going on around them.

Next, we saw an equal-power encounter between a man and a woman in midriff and brief tights. She stood on her hands, then jumped over him. He lifted her overhead. Then, they walked off arm in arm.

There were male stick dances, clacking mock battles in rhythm; sensual dances in which the seductive woman whirls out of the man’s grasp as he tries to catch her from behind; and a clown dance in which a short, fast fellow sambas with snake hips in the midst of a circle of excited women.

There were feats to equal the most daring breakdance moves. Men walked across the stage on their hands, or turned full somersaults in midair like divers off the high board. Amazingly, they performed some of the most extreme moves in sleek slow motion.

The most satisfying sequence was set to the berimbau, an ancient one-stringed instrument made from a gourd and played with a long bow by the dancing capoeiristas. The berimbau is an orchestra in itself. It twangs, buzzes, and throbs percussively. In this seriocomic challenge dance, each man set up his own rhythm as he tried to knock the others off their rhythms. The dancing was all soft steps and springs, smooth changes of level, catlike attacks and defenses executed with coiled power and grace.

The nearly full house, which included a good share of kids and teens, roared in a standing ovation.

Relive the Dream

New York City Ballet
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 8-12

The New York City Ballet opened its 38th season at SPAC on July 8 with the perfect outdoor ballet, George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Based on Shakespeare’s comedy of confusions in an enchanted forest, and set to Mendelssohn’s music, the firefly-lit dance fits SPAC’s open-air theater like a silken glove.

This summer, NYCB is doing four performances each week of a different story ballet, which gives ballet junkies a chance to see multiple casts. Based on what I saw last week, the ideal Dream cast would include the poetic Peter Boal (who danced on opening night) as Oberon, king of the fairy realm; and Maria Kowroski, light as air (July 10), as his Titania.

As Pucks fly, it was a toss-up between Albert Evans, a cheeky sprite who danced in cahoots with the audience, and newcomer Daniel Ulbricht, who excelled in speed in stratospheric jumps.

Jennie Somogyi was outstanding as Hippolyta, the Amazon Queen on a midnight hunt. Swift and strong, she whipped through a set of backward fouettes, mist swirling about her flashing feet. Jennifer Tinsley, in blue, danced a forlorn Hermia, forsaken by her love, Lysander.

Dream unreels Shakespeare’s tale with great dispatch, all in one act, devoting the second act to pure, harmonious dance. Story lovers, even those who don’t know the play, can follow the action. Oberon and Titania meet and quarrel; two pairs of ill-matched lovers fly through the misty woods, bewildered; and Bottom, the weaver, befuddled by Puck, who has crowned him with a donkey’s head, is bemused to find himself adored by Titania.

James Fayette as Bottom did a kicky little dance with the fairy queen, who took his hand and pulled him, reluctantly, offstage.

That same pull, transformed to an ethereal plane, concludes the second-act duet between Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto. Their duet, danced to celebrate the triple wedding of Hippolyta and Theseus, and the now-rightly-matched Athenian couples, is a dance of ideal love. I’ve seen Dream many times, but Whelan’s and Soto’s dancing made me realize this passage is the heart of the ballet—indeed, the very reason it exists.

Alone onstage, they do a slow, elongated promenade set to delicate strings. She turns on point and seems to float upward in his arms. This is dancing at its most sublime, so pure that I was jolted when the fairy music and children’s corps of woodland bugs returned. All ends well when Puck takes up his broom to sweep the dust from out the door—and then, he soars.

Story ballets have their pleasures, but it takes a mixed bill to show the dancers’ mastery of a full range of styles. Glories in this first week of a too-short season began with Concerto Barocco (1941), Balanchine’s archetectonic work to Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins. Here, beauty and logic meet to form an aesthetic and intellectual gem. Whelan danced with ease and Abi Stafford with wit on July 9, embodying the voices of the violins, while a pearly corps regrouped in ever-shifting patterns as the bass line or continuo of this intricate work. James Fayette partnered two casts (Kowroski and Rachel Rutherford on July 12) with flexible tension.

In a completely different style, Saturday’s bill brought back Jerome Robbins’ Piano Pieces (1981). Set to 14 brief works by Tchaikovsky and not seen here for 20 years, Piano Pieces is a Russian feast of dense, brown bread contrasted with silver spoonfuls of caviar. The sturdy corps, led by fleet-footed Benjamin Millepied, dances folk-inflected polkas and scherzos, tempered by a solemn chorale in which their massed bodies move as one.

Between these morsels, three couples in tender pastels danced reveries, mazurkas, and waltzes, re-creating the life of a remembered village. Alexandra Ansanelli, recently promoted to principal dancer, was a little bird suddenly uncaged as she danced a heartbreaking barcarolle that began with simple balances and lyrical arms and swelled to fervent speed and drive as the dancer traversed the stage with flying jetes. The music and movement melted together in this lovely, thoughtful solo touched with exquisite details.

If Robbins’ dancers portray a community, Peter Martins’ five couples in his new Guide to Strange Places are lost souls who meet and grapple on a shadowy moonscape. Guide was a Saratoga premiere, one of four we’ll see over this week and next. It’s set to bludgeoning music by John Adams and lit in subdued rock-show style by Mark Stanley, who floods the backdrop with an ever-changing symphony of suffused colors.

I found the dance disturbing on first sight, not least for its edge of sadism expressed when Soto ever-so-gently wrapped the tails of Darci Kistler’s split red skirt around her neck, then maneuvered her to her knees in the central duet. This was hammered home with Adams’ drumbeats that sounded like gunshots.

The Soto-Kistler coupling is surrounded by four gnarly duets in which the women twirl in the men’s arms like spindles or are carried upside down or presented full front, like moving trophies. Their costumes, in a rainbow of colors, are elegant. These, with the light show, soften the implied cruelty of the choreography.

It must be said that the audiences on July 9 and 12 cheered mightily for Guide. If this is the face of modern ballet, it’s all the more important to preserve the work of Robbins and Balanchine.

—Mae G. Banner

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