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Flash Review 2, 10-31: Shaking Your Booty, with Reservations
Bahe Folklorico: Erotic, Violent -- Afro-Brazilian as We Know it

By Tara Zahra
Copyright 2000 Tara Zahra

ANN ARBOR, Michigan -- A good time was had by all at the Bale Folklorico da Bahia concert Friday at the Power Center. Bale Folklorico, Brazil's only professional folk dance company, was also named Brazil's best dance company, period, three times by the Brazilian Ministry of Culture. This is a folk dance company in the most feel good, get out of your seats sense of the word. The current program, Carnival, is based on a repertory of "authentic folkloric dance" combining African, indigenous Brazilian, and European influences. It begins with spectacle and bravura and builds from there, with the costumes getting wilder (and scantier), the drums getting louder, and the backflips more frequent, until finally the elderly white man in front of you is shaking his booty in the aisle.

The 32-member troupe includes some incredibly fine musicians, vocalists, and dancers, and one of the most captivating parts of the production was seeing these elements woven seemlessly together. The performers even displayed the occasional bit of irony (unusual in folk dance), as when musical soloist Daniel Sousa broke out in a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner on the berimbau, in the long musical solo which introduced "Capoeira." This piece, based on the martial art which originated in Africa and was brought to Brazil by African slaves, was not the only section to have you on the edge of your seat, worrying that someone would get hurt. "Maculele" featured the entire male corps of the company dancing and fighting with knives and what I think were sticks of sugar cane (the dance was originally used as a means of defense by slaves on sugar cane plantations against their owners). The less nerve-racking dances were no less beautiful, and it was hard no to be captivated by the rhythm, precision, speed, and acrobatic power of these dancers.

And yet. I hate to rain on anyone's parade but it is worth taking a moment to consider some of the cultural politics involved. I think one of the first rules of watching folk dance has always got to be "be suspicious of anything that calls itself authentic." Not because there is some unadulterated authentic (Brazilian, or African, or Slovakian) tradition out there, that we could get at if only we were free from the heinous forces of capitalism. Rather, because such authenticity is a myth, and most any folk dance performance is going to be a combination of many evolving traditions (mixtures of different cultures and techniques that were never entirely static), and some "invented traditions," which served to either create a sort of national unity among the (Brazilian, African, Slovakian) population itself, or presented to tourists what they wanted to see.

So, even though I nad a great time at Bale Folklorico along with the rest of the audience, I always feel a tiny bit uncomfortable when an American audience gets to watch a dance company reinforce almost every western stereotype of "primitive" African or indigenous cultures (erotocized, violent, etc.) in the name of cultural enlightenment. That doesn't mean that Bale Folklorico is not a terrific company, or that nothing is to be learned from watching it, but it is worth taking a moment to think about after the dancing in the aisles is over.

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