by Lara J. Altunian
Viver Brasil is a Los Angeles–based Afro-Brazilian music and dance company dedicated to providing viewers with an authentic experience that speaks both to the country’s history and ancient spirituality, along with racial politics, which help explain the group’s singularity within its genre.
On September 22, they will be celebrating their twenty-year anniversary with Agô Ayó otherwise known as Spirits Rising, at Ford Theatres. The production will include six pieces total—four that have been re-staged from its double-decade repertoire and two original works by choreographers Vera Passos and Marina Magalhães, both of whom will also be performing.
Twenty years is not an easy anniversary for any company to reach, even when specializing in an under-represented genre within Los Angeles. Viver Brasil’s portrayal of classic styles from Salvador, Bahia such as Candomblé from Yoruba culture is mixed with modern dance, but maintains a genuine approach to Brazilian movement. This connection through art also spotlights some of Brazil’s social situation as well, which they in turn express in their performances.
“Brazil for so very long attempted to deny its blackness,” says Linda Yudin, dance ethnologist and company’s artistic director. “The way we approach Afro-Brazilian dance is really from that place of absolute beauty and respect. But we are going to attack and we will be thunderous.”
Yudin and her husband Luiz Badaró, native Bahian dancer, drummer in the group’s live band and co-director of Viver Brasil share a vision that is reflected in pieces like “Bloco Afro Spectacle,” choreographed by Passos.
The work showcases strong squatting hip movements and shoulder shakes to traditional drumming sounds. As rows of dancers interlace they stretch out their arms to the side during fast spins, then lower their hands down until they are aligned with their shoulders. While the beats continue, they rear back their elbows slowly, pulling on the air as if it were heavy with sound. Troupe members embrace this movement that comes straight from the Bahian Carnival, a direct imitation of Salvadorian Bloco Afro street festivals.
“It’s this Afro-Brazilian soulfulness that comes from the shoulders. It’s the ‘gincar’ and it’s a Fon language word from the Aja people and it really just means shoulder,” says Yudin. “It has this divine force to it that defines what makes this Afro-Brazilian or Afro-Bahian. You can see the politic of the body which is that resistance or resilience.”
The Bloco Afro movements developed during Brazil’s military dictatorship, which existed between 1964 and 1985. These African-based dances were seen as a way to fight oppression imposed over the entire country, particularly against African and mixed-race citizens. This piece, embedded in Brazil’s civil rights movement, echoes one of the larger problems people of color are still facing there today, as we are dealing with similar issue here after events like the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA.
“We’re all deeply engaged in race and racial violence and equity,” says Yudin. “Racial equity is really important to all of us in the sense of inclusion.”
The feeling translates into Magalhães’ world premiere of “Cor da Pele” (“Color of Skin”), a direct response to anti-black attitudes toward the African Diaspora, particularly within the Americas. The main difference between this and Bloco Afro, however, is a more personal choreographic approach, which the dancers helped co-create. The lasting effect is a powerful piece full of moments of eye-catching intimacy.
“In the beginning of our process, one of the exercises I had us do was to create solos inspired by an elder,” says Magalhães. “Rachel Hernandez …created a solo inspired by her white grandmother and by her black grandmother. She was inspired by her grandmother who plays piano.”
Magalhães explains how this concept translated to a simple finger-walking exercise the women do while lying on their sides with their ears to the ground listening for ancestral messages. It explores the Yoruba belief of ancestors existing in nature, all while Caetano Veloso’s song “Terra” (“Earth”), the show’s only non-original composition, is sung in the background.
This aspect of spirituality compliments another segment of Agô Ayó called “Orixas,” restaged by Passos, which explores the deities celebrated by the Yoruba and Aja who originated from West Africa. According to their religious philosophy, called Candomblé, those who are initiated discover which orixas rule over their livelihood and can embody them if the person offers themselves as a vessel. Orixas also each come with accompanying mythologies, dances and songs associated with each goddess.
The divine forces and their stories dictate much of the movement. The piece was originally choreographed by Rosangela Silvestre, but is based off of Dona Cici (Nancy de Souza e Silva)’s teachings. Cici is an authority in the religion and one of Yudin’s spiritual mothers. The dance includes hearts beating against their chests to match drumming sounds, sudden gasps, a dramatic faint and other indications of what it may be like invoking an orixa.
Another one of Yudin’s mentors whose authority and extensive knowledge informs Yudin’s artistic direction was Zelita (Joselita Moreira da Cruz Silva) who passed away in 2016. Zelita was one of the first to show Yudin an up-close look at Bahian chula samba from Reconcavo when she began to learn about Brazilian dance in 1987. Passos’ world premiere of “Para Onde a Samba Me Leva” (“Where the Samba Takes Me”) is dedicated to her.
The piece begins with an honoring of her spirit through a salutation of “Gloria, gloria Santo Espíritu” before eventually transitioning into a lively samba. Dancers play percussion with spoons in an homage to house slaves which originally brought it with them from Africa and used everyday objects such as utensils to create rhythm.
“Samba…makes you go back in a circle,” says Passos. “It puts you in a place of reflection. I think that the simple fact of this cultural encounter where there is no separation, where we’re able to dialogue and to think for the common good, is an act of hope.”
Yudin connects Bahia’s spirituality and political situation in the show because they feed each other, much as Magalhães and Passos’ sections invert emotional situations to tell both sides of history.
Viver Brasil has faced its fair share of problems over the years, mostly financial. Its endurance is a testament of the group’s vitality within Los Angeles as a bridge to Bahia and the preservation of its culture in solidarity with the social movements both regions are facing in separate countries, but which can be embraced and mirrored through art.
“I think what allows us to thrive is that there’s space in the company to really shout out and articulate our politic,” says Yudin. “We are living in a socially inequitable reality and the black and brown body is really no threat. It’s beautiful.”
For more information on the schedule from Ford Theatres, visit https://www.fordtheatres.org/calendar.
For more information on Viver Brasil, visit http://www.viverbrasil.com/.