As an athletic spectacle, DanceBrazil’s performance at the ’62 Center’s MainStage on Saturday night was unbeatable. Backs bent impossibly, kicks flew within inches of faces, bodies twirled and bounced with superhuman speed and force. The performers pushed the Afro-Brazilian dance/martial art of capoeira to its limits.
But as the 50-odd people who participated in DanceBrazil’s master class on Friday afternoon can attest, capoiera is more than a spectacle; it is a complex, intimate ritual better suited for small groups than large auditoriums. A traditional performance involves two capoeiristas “sparring” inside a ring of spectators, not unlike breakdance. The point is not for one capoeirista to strike another, but to establish a shared rhythm of kicks (each missing the opponent by inches), defensive moves and acrobatics. When done right, it looks like the combatants are reading each others’ minds. Drums as well as berimbaus, a west African single-stringed instrument that produces a buzzy twang as mesmerizing as a didgeridoo, always accompany the capoeiristas.
When you get 50 people standing in a circle, sweating like crazy, chanting in Portuguese to the hypnotic twang of the berimbau while two capoeiristas face off in what looks like a fight or a mating ritual, group frenzy kicks in (group frenzy is that feeling of love, happiness and fraternity you feel as part of a group of people that is taking deep pleasure in celebration ritual). On Saturday night, the MainStage’s size and traditional “spectator vs. performer” arrangement made it impossible for the spectators – a term that doesn’t really relate to capoeira – to participate, reducing the show to just another dazzling circus performance.
The first act of DanceBrazil’s show was not capoeira, but some aimless, repetitive thing that nearly put me to sleep. The second half, “The Capoeria,” was organized around distinct acts – a courtship, a contest, etc. – demarcated by costume changes. The basic goal was always to up the ante with increasingly impossible displays of speed, balance and flexibility. One man did several hands-free cartwheels in a row, earning uproarious applause from the audience. Another elicited “oohs” and “aahs” by standing on his head and slowly moving his legs to the side until they were nearly parallel to the ground.
In the second half the clothes started coming off. First to go were the shirts, unbuttoned to begin with, and which tended – by design – to ride up, revealing chiseled torsos. Then the pants began to get tighter and sag suggestively in front. And then – bam – hotpants. The crowed was at first coy, not wanting to seem easy to the lean Brazilians. But the sexual tension mounted with each protracted dip, and the crowd finally allowed themselves to be seduced. The quartet blew breezy, tropical melodies into their ears, transforming the Brazilian slums of their imaginations into Abercrombie and Fitch: The Movie. I didn’t mind that the show was also a celebration of youthful vigor and sexuality, but in my mind the physical distance between the performers and the spectators, in addition to the psychological difference between a performance to be observed and a ritual to be participated in, made sexual objects out of the performers, cheapening their appeal.
The performers reminded me of circus acrobats I’d seen in Moscow, a connection the director must have sought to cultivate: he had the drummer crack the high-hat whenever a dancer finished a particularly impressive combination. But as in all circus shows, the capoeiristas eventually reach their physical limits and the show ended. In the master class they had taught us that capoiera was about group frenzy; in the performance, it seemed to be about who was the most athletic.
Many people left that show wishing they were in better shape. I thought this myself, but I also noticed how unimaginatively we use our bodies on a daily basis compared to the capoeira dancers. Even our European sports – strenuous though they may be – require a comparatively limited range of motion, which may explain the popularity of yoga as an alternative. Incidentally, capoeira is also exploding worldwide. After Saturday’s dazzling show, I look forward to seeing aspiring capoeiristas on campus this spring, practicing in small groups in the quads, reveling in the lovely weather, with group frenzy and their hotpants.