Balé Folclórico da Bahia

Bahia brought their vibrant culture and folklore to the Zellerbach stage once again in “Sacred Heritage.” An exuberant display of Afro-Brazilian dance, Balé Folclórico da Bahia captured the hearts of the enthralled audience members, hands down. With live music and countless costume changes, “Sacred Heritage” left the audience anticipating every dance and did not fail to impress them with the impeccable skill and natural grace the Afro-Brazilian dancers possessed.

Balé Folclórico da Bahia, a 38-member troupe of dancers, musicians, and singers, presented a variety of “Bahian” folkloric dances of African origin: slave dances, capoeira, samba, and celebration of the Carnival. Founded in 1988 by Walson Botelho and Ninho Reis, this company has earned prestigious awards and has achieved worldwide success in just a short amount of time. Early on, they won “Best Performance of the Year” at the Bahia International Dance Festival and went on to tour internationally. “Sacred Heritage” celebrates their rich Afro-Brazilian religious tradition by honoring the most important deities, or Orixas.

The show opened up with a soloist in a chief-like costume on a closed-curtain stage as dancers slowly moved through the theater from the back of the aisles. It’s always a special sight to see – performers in the audience. Right from the start, I knew this show was going to be different from a typical theatre event.

The live musicians and singers onstage, the elaborate costumes, and the amount of skill and amazing technique the choreography required of all the dancers made the show so incredible. The more intimate pieces had dim lighting to set the stage while the more energetic pieces had bright lights to highlight their colorful costumes and to set the lively mood. The costumes all appropriated to the type of piece and maximized our visual insight on the Afro-Brazilian culture. I personally enjoyed watching the dancers move all across the stage in their colorful grass skirts and headpieces, but definitely was awed by the elaborate, lavish costumes – especially the glowing dress, which I believe illustrated the Goddess of the Sea.

My favorite piece was “Capoeira de Amor” – as the name insinuates, I was captivated by the love the two dancers expressed through their movements. Capoeira is a form of martial art, which was originated by African slave descendants with Brazilian influence. From learning capoeira in class, I had believed the art to be playful and when wholly executed, able to severely injure your opponent. In this piece, however, a man and a woman in minimal white costume – showing virtually every part of their bodies – turned capoeira into a love battle. They intertwined the evasive technique of capoeira with sensuality – I could feel the burning passion from the balcony. They turned what I thought was such a masculine art form into a form of art that could be taken in different contexts; and in this case, the man and woman were dancing for love. The martial arts aspect of the piece showed struggle and even resistance to each other but the physicality of the man and woman showed they’re fire and yearning for each other. It was absolutely beautiful to witness; it felt like I was watching their relationship progress, deter, and survive all in one infatuating dance.

The level of difficulty these dancers reached blew me away. The men showed off their strength and agility; they continuously dropped down into the splits effortlessly. They also showed off their acrobatic skills – doing flips and somersaults all across the stage. A real crowd pleaser was the men doing ultra-fast kicks in their capoeira section – they did long one-after-another sequences and did such a precise job of kicking their leg high enough each time without kicking their opponent’s face. I know that was definitely not a speed we even thought possible when learning capoeira in class. It was so amazing to see them execute what we had learned in the highest level – blew me away!

I enjoyed watching the female dancers especially in “Afixire” and “Samba Reggae” where they celebrated the sensuality and true spirit of the Bahian people. With their colorful costumes and upbeat rhythms, the dancers emitted the joy they were experiencing onstage to the audience members. They moved as one but each had an individual presence with their own feisty flavor. Their big-yet-controlled movements really highlighted the contractions in the spine and wild, free arm motions that Afro-Brazilian dance is known for. Taken from a first-hand experience where I had to opportunity to take an Afro-Brazilian class with a former dancer of the company, I was so impressed by their high-energy throughout the entire show. The skill and energy their folklore requires is breathtaking (literally) and to have performed with such high energy with high spirits and genuine joy throughout was just extraordinary to watch.

What was so special about this show, in my opinion, was its ability to showcase such a wide variety of talent while highlighting every one – each having been integral to the show as a whole. Even though the musicians and singers were lined up in front of the backdrop in dim lighting for most of the show, there was a special solo for one of the singers as well as solos for the musicians. At the ending celebration, many of the dancers had the chance to showcase their individuality before they came together to dance in unison for the audience one last time. But of course, they didn’t really mean to end it there – the dancers jumped into the aisles of Zellerbach and had audience members on their feet, dancing and clapping their hands together. It’s always a special sight to see performers in the audience but it’s something truly inspiring when you see them engaging the audience – getting the audience to do some Afro-Brazilian moves especially! Each audience member had the same positive vibes and enlivening music flowing through their body. It was a Balé Folclórico da Bahia celebration in Zellerbach on Sunday night and I’m so glad I was present to witness this group of talented performers really moving the people through cultural traditions and making an impact on them even if it was just for that one night.

All images courtesy of Cal Performances.

Samantha Dizon
BARE Reporter

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