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 The Ballet Folclorico Do Brasil

The Ballet Folclorico Do Brasil, an exuberant 15-member ensemble of dancers, singers, and musicians that performs the Afro-Brazilian dances and rituals from Brazil's northern state of Bahia, performed its audience-captivating two-hour program at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, November 12, 1998, in Taylor Auditorium on the Missouri Southern State College Campus.

Earlier in the day, at 9:30-10:30 a.m., it presented a lecture demonstration. Both performances were free to the public and were sponsored by the Institute of International Studies.

The Los Angeles-based troupe is known primarily in the western and southwestern states where critics have praised them in these terms:

"The full effect ¾ drumming throbbed life into every muscle fiber, strong swaying bodies suddenly make you feel strange to be sitting still." (Santa Barbara News Press, 5/7/97)

"The do Brasil dancers combine the limitless, on-fire-from-head-to-toe energy of hyperactive children with the technique of practiced masters." (Sacramento News and Review, 5/9/96)

"Do Brasil offers an exuberant and enriching 'behind the scenes look' at Brazil." (Ashland Tidings, Oregon)

The Ballet Folclorico do Brasil begins each show with a dance of purification "to cleanse the performance space." And it ends each show with stylized combat..

 The Ballet Folclorico Do Brasil

In its evening concert performance on November 12 the ensemble presented a variety of African-influenced dance forms from the Bahia region of Brazil.

In addition to the limpeza, or purification dance, the ensemble performed a number of dances including samba de roday, or circle samba; maculele, a stick dance originally performed with stalks of sugarcane; puxada de rede, a dance that "celebrates the connection between human beings and the sea;" and the trocano, which commemorates an ancient Amazon form of communicative drumming.

But the Brazilian dance which gets the most attention, perhaps, is the capoeira, a style of acrobatic dance that is actually a martial art developed by the African people in Brazil during their struggle to be liberated from slavery.

Three centuries ago in Brazil, a village of runaway slaves developed a lethal form of martial arts called capoeira and then used the high-powered moves to resist the political forces surrounding their home of Palmares. Soon, the beautiful but dangerous practice of self-defense was outlawed, forcing the tradition underground.

By disguising their exercises and sparring as "folk dance," capoeiristas continued to hone their fighting skills in a way that attracted less attention. Now capoeira is in the spotlight.

It is a breathtaking spectacle of whirlwind kicks and cartwheels that blurs the human form with motion, testing the flexibility and defying the weight of the body. The dancers advance, engaging point-blank like sworn enemies. Half of the audience's awe comes from the realization that the dancers aren't actually killing each other.

Ballet Folclorico do Brasil is much, much more than a circus act, however. The group combines folk dance, percussion and singing in a talented display of Brazilian culture from African roots. Traditional instruments and surreal jungle rhythms lend a sense of the ancient to a very modern ensemble.

Company founder Amen Santo's 20 years of performing arts experiences have brought him a long way from his native Bahia. Besides performing at Carnegie Hall, in Nike commercials, and in Hollywood action films, Santo has taught in Europe, Canada, and L.A.

When Santo takes the stage, his joints and limbs swing wildly like the Tasmanian Devil. His handstands and head-first flips are somewhere in between breakdancing and gymnastics pommel-horse work.

Santo's moves make you cringe as he teeters, bottom up, on a single, over-extended wrist, but the fluid elasticity of the overall performance is a delight to witness. The do Brasil dancers combine the limitless, on-fire-from-head-to-toe energy of hyperactive children with the technique and control of practiced masters, executing the kinds of acrobatics most of us only dream of.

But the dancing isn't uniformly lethal. Besides the gyroscopic gymnastics, Ballet Folclorico's repertoire includes a variety of more gentler art forms. The puxada de rede mentioned earlier, is performed in a ring formation in which dancers wave long sheets in a complex but synchronous flow, evoking the restlessness of the ocean.

The most striking thing about the company is the range of talent manifested in the small group. Part of the cultural exposure embodied by the event comes from listening to the troupe play instruments you've probably never ever heard of. Sounds range from the haunting, metallic hum of tight-strung steel wire being struck with a bow, to the surprising articulate squawks and chirps of a fingernail on the inside of a drum skin.

The Ballet Folclorico do Brasil provided a transition from Missouri Southern's "Africa Semester" to its spring symposium on the Panama Canal and the role of Latin America and the fall, 1999, semester which is called "The Latin America Semester."

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