The artistic director and choreographer of DanceBrazil talks about the company’s broad appeal and the Capoeira dance style.
Dallas — For more than 30 years DanceBrazil has been dazzling audiences across the U.S. and around the world with its unique fusion of Afro-Brazilian, contemporary and Capoeira dance forms.
Formed in 1977 by Jelon Vieira and the late Loremil Machado, DanceBrazil’s mission has been to educate communities on the Brazilian culture primarily through the Brazilian dance style know as Capoeira. Capoeira (pronounced “cap-wed-a”) originated in Africa and evolved in colonial Brazil as a means of fighting enslavement. Capoeira draws inspiration from other movement forms including acrobatics and martial arts.
TheaterJones asks Vieira about DanceBrazil’s role in the communities it visits, his dance training growing up and the traits that make DanceBrazil so appealing to audiences.
You can see this one-of-a-kind company perform at the Wyly Theatre in Dallas April 13-14, presented by TITAS at the AT&T Performing Arts Center.
TheaterJones: What has DanceBrazil achieved over the past 30 years?
Jelon Vieira: Our mission has been to educate as many as we can about the Brazilian culture through our performances and workshops. Since moving to this country in the 1970s, this has been my mission and my passion. We used to do week-long, sometimes month-long, residences in the communities, but because of the economy in the last few years we had to stop. This was my favorite because we could leave the community with something and we could also take something away, like a cultural exchange. Now we perform and leave. I like it when we can really interact with the community, as I think it creates a strong connection between us and the audience.
Was educational outreach always part of the company‘s plan?
Yes! I believe we can learn from the community and we have to give back to them. You also have to promote your art and get people interested. This makes people stronger and helps them enjoy more of what they see. When they get to know the artist and really get to share in the moment, that’s my mission. To get people to know your culture, you can’t just show them; you have to get them involved and feel the soul of what we do.
When did you begin training in Capoeira?
I started learning Capoeira movements when I was 10 years old. Next year, 2013, it will be 50 years that I have been learning Capoeira. This is my true art! When I turned 16 I joined a folk dance company where I learned traditional Brazilian dance. This was my base. When I was 17 or 18 I started learning other dance forms like modern and contemporary while also continuing my Capoeira.
Capoeira is present in everything I do. In some of my pieces I use Capoeira as a turning point while other pieces are strictly Capoeira. In one of my pieces I use movement to talk about the world today. I have spent so much time in this country and learned so much, yet I can’t be an artist or choreographer if I totally ignore my Brazilian roots. These dances come from the Sumba and Capoeira culture, and no one moves the way Brazilian dancers move. To do Capoeira you have to practice and become part of the culture.
Do you need acrobatics training to do Capoeira?
Capoeira has a lot of acrobatics, but that doesn’t mean when you’re learning Capoeira that you have to also learn how to be an acrobat. Capoeira has its own acrobatics and you will learn all the flips later on. Capoeira is more like martial arts. To someone new to Capoeira it looks like a fight.
What other dance styles do you incorporate into your pieces?
I use a lot of traditional movement, but because there are so many techniques, I don’t particularly say this is ballet and this is modern. I use anything and everything. Anything that comes to me naturally and makes sense I use in my choreography. It’s really all about how I feel and what I want to say.
What do you look for in your dancers?
I get to know dancers by their body movement and gestures. For me, the most important thing is character and personality because we are going to spend a lot of time together. It’s hard to work with people who have bad behaviors. I need people who are healthy mentally and spiritually to help enhance my work.
During an audition of course I look for character, but I also look for people who can respond quickly to rhythm. I like dancers who become the rhythm: who become what they do and become the dance. I have been lucky to work with lovely dancers and incredible people who have really become like family.
Next year will be your 50th year of Capoeira training. Is there still more that you would like to learn?
I am an eternal learner. I learn from my dancers, from my students and from people like you. And everything I learn I try to bring into my work. And of course I still have a lot to learn in Capoeira, but on another level. Not on a physical level, but on a mental and spiritual level. My goal is to someday reach this level. I will keep working and challenging myself.
Capoeira also keeps me in touch with my ancestors. It’s what I am. They passed it down to me and now it’s my mission and moral obligation to keep passing on the art to other generations. And I will always do this.
This piece was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.