Review: Balé Folclórico da Bahia at the Merriam Theater

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They say “music is the universal language.” Balé Folclórico da Bahia definitely proved that in their one-night-only performance in Philadelphia at the Merriam Theater. The show, Bahia of All Colors, was nearly two hours of non-stop exuberant sound, movement and energy. Considered by Brazil’s Ministry of Culture as the “best dance company in Brazil,” Balé Folclórico brought its heart and soul to Philadelphia and shared a colorful tapestry of dances and live music that reflects Brazil’s early heritage, a mix of the African, indigenous and Portuguese.

Capoeira. Photo by Marisa Viana.

Capoeira. Photo by Marisa Viana.

Walson Botelho is the General Director of Balé Folclórico da Bahia and was also co-founder of this company back in 1988. The leadership team also includes Artistic Director José Carlos Arandiba and Musical Director José Ricardo Sousa. Balé Folclórico hails from Bahia, one of Brazil’s northeastern states, and one with a large population of people of African descent. The company performed to live music, which included percussion, berimbau (a Brazilian instrument of one string of African origin), and singing in Yoruba and Portuguese. The versatile singers, Dora Santana, Gilmar Sampaio, and Miralva Couto, were amplified with microphones. They captured the solemnity of Afro-Brazilian religion in Origin Dance, told the stories of the Fisherman Dance and Maculelê, and livened up the party with Carnaval songs in Samba Reggae.

The show consisted of seven different dances, with no intermission: Origin Dance, Fisherman’s Dance, Maculelê, Samba de Roda, Capoeira, Afixirê, and Samba Reggae.

The foundation of much of the choreography is West African, since Bahia is the center of Afro-Brazilian culture. The most African of the dances consisted of more grounded movements, with level changes between lying/sitting/kneeling on the floor and standing. However, in Capoeira, there are acrobatics — such as handstands, backflips, leaps, spins and jumps. All of the choreography is bound to rhythm. The percussion is highly significant — the drums determine the beat, and the dancers and singers never lose track of it. The intricacy of the rhythms and the use of “isolations” – individual body parts moving differently or separately from others – also characterize most of these dances, and reflect their African heritage.

The dancers were all in excellent form. Their flexibility, precision, footwork, extensions and acrobatics, as well as their overall high energy and enthusiasm, showcased their extensive training, professionalism and expertise. To perform so many dances in succession and with such passion requires a lot of rehearsal and stamina. However, they were not over-rehearsed or stale – each dance, albeit perfectly executed, appeared fresh, spirited and spontaneous, as if they were performing it for the first time. My favorite moments of the evening included the company’s entrance, Fisherman’s Dance (Puxada da Rede), the berimbau solo, and the audience participation in Samba Reggae.

Samba de Roda. Photo by Mariza Vianna.

Samba de Roda. Photo by Mariza Viana.

The show, Bahia of All Colors, began with the dancers dressed in white — men in white robes, women in white dresses with hoopskirts (Bahian traditional dress) and white head coverings for all. They filed into the two aisles of the orchestra seating and began to chant and dance. This type of opening is very effective because it made me feel like I was part of the performance. By coming from the house through the audience, the company broke down the traditional distance that the stage creates between performers and audience. Considering that the languages used in the singing were unknown to the majority of the audience, and the rhythms and dances equally as “foreign,” this staging of the opening was welcoming. It was as if I was ushered into their world and was a guest that they appreciated and were very happy to see.

The Fisherman’s Dance was beautiful in all aspects, and depicted the orixá, or goddess, Iemanjá, danced by Aloma Silva. The music that accompanied her entrance sounded like water flowing. Since I am familiar with Iemanjá and her water references, I knew it was her instantly. Her blue shimmery dress and fan were exquisite and representative of her colors — flashing a coral sheen underneath when she turned a certain way. Iemanjá’s arms are smooth and sinewy, undulating like snakes, as if she is swimming. The fishermen and their wives come onstage carrying big straw hats. Their choreography mimics catching fish in the hats. The origin of this dance is Bahian folklore, and the people ask Iemanjá to help them catch many fish. This is represented with a huge net that is attached to Iemanjá. The men hold the net while the women dance under it.

Fábio Santos performed a berimbau and conga drum solo. The berimbau solo was particularly impressive because the instrument is not well known in the United States. When it is played in this country, it is usually an accompaniment to capoeira (Brazilian martial art), and often only simple repetitive tunes are heard. Santos is a master of the instrument, and his berimbau was played with virtuosity, employing different pitches and variations.

The last part of the performance was the Samba Reggae. This piece was more contemporary and consisted of popular songs and dances from the Bahian Carnaval. The dancers were lively and the male dancers also played the drums that are customarily used in the percussion section for the Carnaval parades. The singers encouraged audience participation. I sang along, clapped and also got out of my seat, along with the entire orchestra section. The dancers came into the aisles and an audience member was invited onstage to dance. This continued and enhanced the interaction between the performers and the audience, which had begun even before the show. Philadelphia’s Project Capoeira performed a capoeira demonstration, played drums and led a parade from the Kimmel Center Commonwealth Plaza. They warmed me up for the culture, rhythm and the intensity of Balé Folclórico da Bahia, a delicious taste of Brazil in Philadelphia!

Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission.

Balé Folclórico da Bahia performed on February 17, 2017 and was presented by the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts at the Merriam Theater – 250 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA. For future events go to the Kimmel Center’s calendar of events. For more information on Balé Folclórico da Bahia events, visit their website or Facebook page.

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One Response to Review: Balé Folclórico da Bahia at the Merriam Theater

  1. Eric Elmore February 19, 2017 at 1:03 pm #

    Ms. Mann certainly knows what she is talking about. She’s a gifted and talented polymath of the arts in her own right. Thanks for the review. I hope to catch this show should it event come this way again!