Review: Baila Brazil

Country Life's dance critic reviews a high-energy celebration of the Brazilian spirit at the Southbank Centre.

In 1992, three Brazilian dancers—two of them self-taught in funk, hip hop and breakdancing, the third devoted to the Afro-Brazilian tradition in urban dance—put their heads and talents together to establish the Cia de Dança Balé de Rua (Street Ballet). Opening studios throughout the city of Uberlândia, which is almost 600 kilometers inland from Saõ Paolo, and touring the country with the dancers they had trained, they regularly developed new shows that have now reached 13 countries.

The 14 dancer/percussionists, only one a woman, in Baila Brazil cram 90 hectic minutes with a fusion of street styles and cultural history. Wrapping their heads in their long skirts, the men first appear as praying women, inhabiting familiar figures without betraying the proud masculinity that infuses every number. Stripped to shorts and shoes, they trade spectaclar moves in cheerful competition or bind themselves together in an elastic web shaped by their lunging attempts to escape it.

Baila brazil

Credit: Frederic Desmesure

Too big for a nightclub act and too small for a street festival, the show resembled both as dizzying passages of samba, capoeira and breaking careened past in no apparent order. The Brazilians in the audience would have recognized their country’s heritage in the brief allusions to slavery and unearthly spirits. The rest of us, who know less about those references, focused instead on the men’s remarkable skill.

Without the slightest warning, one dancer’s body would hold a conversation with itself, interrupting flurries of flashing speed with sudden, suspenseful pauses. Rhythmic patterns of jittery footwork dominated other sequences, or outlandish tumbling, or silky rippling impulses that flowed effortlessly across the shoulders from one outstretched hand to the fingertips of the other.

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In those fractional shifts and liquid slides, energy and ambition erased the distinction between enthusiasm and captivating performance. More than 300 students from local communities benefit annually from training that offers them a path out of the favelas. This cast followed it to success in the wider world. Why can’t the same thing happen here?

Part of the South Bank’s Festival of Love, Baila Brazil runs through 15 August at Royal Festival Hall.

Africa Utopia 2015, Southbank Centre, 10-13 September, features African stage and social dance along with music, lectures, and exhibits.

Out of India: Modern Moves showcases three of that country’s contemporary choreographers during Dance Umbrella, 21-24 October.