Sunday, 21 September 2008

A double dose of Brazilian dance for France

Ladies and gentlemen readers welcome to a couple of minutes of dance floor magic.

For the men, put aside any juvenile images you might still harbour of male dancers being nothing more than "men in tights." And for the women (and the male of the human race who appreciate dance) feast your eyes on the accompanying videos and remember it as you read the following review.

For here we go. Brazil meets France "en dance" - just for a couple of days - and the result is ASTOUNDING.

Nope, it's not the world renowned samba or even capoeira, that mix of martial arts and dance whose roots are African but was developed in Brazil's regions centuries ago. There are doubtless those better placed out there to tell us more about those particular delights.

Instead it's the "sensual and generous" - so the blurb runs - performance of the Brazilian dance troupe Companhia Sociedade Masculina.

And believe me - that description wasn't far off the mark

It’s an all male dance company (just eight of them) from the Brazilian city of São Paulo and it was making a return engagement in France at the weekend, appearing at Lyon’s biennale dance festival, which is running at venues throughout the city from September 6 until the end of the month.

In total 42 different companies are performing from 19 different countries, and I had plumped for the Companhia Sociedade Masculina after reading the rave reviews it had received during its last appearance in Lyon in December 2007.

Now anyone who read a previous piece I posted on “Tanguera” – an Argentinian musical currently running in the French capital tracing the origins of tango and performed throughout almost exclusively in that dance style – will remember that I “outed” myself as one of those talentless back-to-front footed no-hopers with little sense of rhythm and no dance floor timing.

But that certainly doesn’t stop me, or anybody else out there in the same position from being able to appreciate “poetry on legs.”

In fact that’s probably not even doing the performance given by Companhia Sociedade Masculina nearly enough justice.

It was an hour’s worth of being transported from the trials of everyday life into a completely different world – that of dance.

The mainly French audience must have known they were in for something special before the performance even began. Apart from the company coming with a reputation from previous visits, there was also a large contingent of Brazilians in the orchestra seats, chattering animatedly and even for those who couldn't speak a word of Portuguese, it wasn’t difficult to understand that they were all waiting, excitedly, impatiently. That had to be a good sign.

The lights dimmed and a hush descended upon the audience to be replaced by the strains of an immediately recognisable Latin beat.

First up was the 30 minutes of Um Olhar, created by the man who is considered by many to be one of his generation’s most talented choreographers, the 44-year-old Brazilian born and bred Henrique Rodovalho. It's his interpretation of the work of Hélio Oiticica.

The piece is basically a look – through dance – at the musical scene in Brazil during the 1960s when the country was ruled by a military dictatorship.

But forget the politics – that’s really just to place Rodovalho’s creation in its historical context.

The tunes are familiar and what the eight dancers actually do with the choreography and to the music is in the words of one local newspaper critic ”complete engagement” combined with ”technical prowess". And it certainly makes them a marvel.

Actually it’s hard to believe that there are only eight men in the company. They’re not always all on stage at the same time, and it’s not easy to keep track sometimes as in this piece in particular they all seem to be dancing different routines at the same time.

Even when they form couples there’s little synchronisation among them. But far from being distracting, it all seems to blend together marvellously.

And as for the sheer power and masculinity of the performance, well any doubts anyone might still foster that an all-male troupe would somehow seem effeminate, are soon dispelled.

That power is also tempered with a grace and an athleticism that would put many better paid professional sportsmen to shame. They leap, gyrate, tumble and turn through a series of moves that show the diverse roots of the company.

Founder Vera Lafer said when she started the company at the beginning of 2000 that she wanted it to challenge the clichés that surrounded males dancers by choosing them from a number of backgrounds (classical, modern, jazz and even capoeira) and having them tackle pieces created by daring contemporary choreographers.

And that’s the ethos that has been maintained by the company’s artistic director Anselmo Zolla in both pieces presented in Lyon.

After 30 minutes it was over – well the 100 per cent Brazilian part of the evening anyway. There was the inevitable rapturous applause as the lights went up allowing a short pause to recover – for both the dancers and the audience.

Just a quarter of an hour later though the troupe was back, this time to perform Palpable by the Greek choreographer, Andonis Foniadakis.

This was from the opening note far less accessible and a real challenge to both the dancers’ abilities and the audience’s ears.

The “music” was what some might unkindly consider quite a generous term for the accompanying “sound” that belted out of the loudspeakers.

It was a clanking, mechanical and industrial noise that initially irritated but through the brilliance of the choreography soon won you over.

All right so it’s never going to be the sort of thing you’ll flip on to your CD player in the comfort of your sitting room. It certainly wouldn’t help you relax. In fact it’s perhaps more likely to make Bjork sound decidedly old hat and completely in tune.

It was simply one continuous grinding, thumping, intensely disturbing combination of sounds that built to a crescendo. And somehow, sitting there watching and listening, it all seemed to make perfect sense as once again the dancers leapt and spun through the performance.

Sometimes individually, often in couples and occasionally all together. And every move was executed with incredible speed and finesse as the music and the dance flowed and married.

Then once again it was all over – this time for good.

A standing ovation, beaming smiles from the Brazilians in the audience, even more animated chatter than at the beginning, and the French seemed to have lost any inhibitions they might have had as they cheered what they had just been treated to.

And one particular member of the audience picked himself up from an exhausted heap in his seat and headed out into the night to savour and recapture in his mind exactly what he had just seen.

As (I think) the Brazilians would say, "Um abraço."

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