Dancing with the Gods: VIVER BRASIL marks 20 years as LA’s Afro-Latin home

Whirling skirts in bright layered hues, drums in tappeting polyrhythms, a pair of powerful voices in threading harmonies … and bodies, leaping, twisting, embracing, departing, bending to scoop earth or water, exploding into air …

Candomble is a religion that grew up among the African slaves kidnapped and taken for centuries into Brazil’s colonial capital, Bahia state.  Its name means “Dancing with the Gods.”

Hardly the name you’d expect for a faith created by imprisoned laborers on severely oppressive sugar-cane plantations.  Yet for these people living in chains, the divine power of love was never too far to reach.  All they had to do was dance.

And dance they did, for 500 years, right past the end of the Portuguese Empire, past the prohibition of slavery, past the collapse of the plantations. Right into the heart of modern Brazil.

Just 20 years ago, Bahia sent a gift of these dances to Los Angeles — when Linda Yudin and Luiz Badaró made a dream real with their new company, Viver Brasil.

Friday night, at the Ford Amphitheater, that company  — now known throughout the US, Canada, Mexico, South Africa and (of course) Brazil — threw a birthday party.  They called it Agô Ayó (“Spirits Rising”).  For three hours, the artists opened gift after gift, works that have been created by and for the Viver Brasil family.

“Orixas” – Vera Passos (photo: Jorge Vismara)

All the works proudly and happily employ the language of candomble, its gods (orixas) and songs of worship. Each dance tells a story; some are traditional, some new.  Each is also a hymn:  The dancers’ bodies, the singers’ voices, and the musicians’ playing all invoke divine powers.  And these orixas are not only praised and summoned, they appear and they act — each dance embodies the divinely-led transformation it invites.

So it’s no surprise that Viver Brasil, while honoring the colorful traditions of candomble, also continues its historic focus on empowerment and social activism.  (Candomble began, remember, as a clandestine resistance against the obliteration of African culture.) The company’s “Community Class” has shared Afro-Brazilian dance every Tuesday for 17 years now, reaching out to more than 10,000 people.  And its free “Samba in the Streets” program, begun in Leimert Park, travels to Selma and Birmingham, Alabama, this winter.

The dances also reflect this activist tradition.

“Avaninha” – Nagode Simpson, Ashley Blanchard (photo: Jorge Vismara)

The two oldest works on the evening’s agenda, Orixas (2007) and Avaninha (2009), serve as a primer of candomble.  The former introduces its major deities, and the latter beseeches them — mainly Obaluaiyé, god of healing — to enter and repair a world in need. They were created as a gift to the newborn Viver Brasil by Bahia’s most eminent dancer/teacher, Rosangela Silvestre.  For Agô Ayó, her equally renowned protegée Vera Passos revised them to reflect our current distresses.

“Motumbaxé” – Samad Guerra, Rachel Hernandez, Laila Abdullah – in back, Emina Shimanuki, Felicia “Onyi” Richards
(photo: Gia Trovela)

Passos’ two newer works, Motumbaxé (2016) and Pra Onde O Samba Me Leva (“Wherever the Samba Takes Me,” 2017) also dwell in the present and offer “dancing with the gods” as medicine. Motumbaxé recalls the eruption of Afro-Brazilian parade teams into Bahia’s celebration of Carnaval in the 1970s, bringing reggae and Afro rhythms to samba, reviving African dance moves, and asserting the beauty and value of blackness.  Pra Onde memorializes the late master dancer Zelita’s devotion to the samba, following its undulating rhythms into every human state from anguish to ecstasy.

“Revealed” – Nagodé Simpson (photo: Gia Trovela)

Another recent work, Revealed (2016), choreographed by Shelby Williams-Gonzalez, steps boldly into the moment.  Three orixas — Ola-Iansá (warrior goddess of the winds), Oxum (love goddess and protector of children), and Oba (goddess of the hunt) — shed their crowns to mourn with human mothers at the ongoing slaughter of black and brown youths. Wielding no power but empathy, they must await the arrival of Naná (goddess of fallen spirits) and Iemanja (the mother goddess of all).

“Cor da Pele” – Ajah Muhammad, Marina Magalhaes, Bianca Medina – in back, Nagode Simpson, Rachel Hernandez, Ashley Blanchard (credit: Gia Trovela)

In the newest and most overtly political dance, Cor da Pele (“Skin Color,” 2017), creator Marina Magalhäes adds a canção from Brazilian troubador Caetano Veloso, verses from American poet Nayyirah Waheed, and angular, often staccato moves to the elements of tradition.  Her danced hymn, as old as slavery and as new as today’s headlines, demands that the gods — and we — give voice and value to people of black and mixed-race heritage, and to their life experiences.  As Linda Yudin noted afterward, with this often shocking, always entrancing piece, Magalhäes is no longer “emerging” but one of LA’s foremost choreographers.

More than 1,000 people were enraptured by Agô Ayó.   You may have missed the birthday, but the party goes on.  The Tuesday night classes at Dance Arts Academy (731 S. La Brea Ave.) are open to all, and the 45-minute “Cooking Samba” show can be hosted by any community group.  On October 21, Viver Brasil will perform at the Getty Museum’s Family Festival, and on November 5 they’ll be at UCLA’s Fowler Museum. Wherever you catch them, be prepared to dance!
Agô Ayó (“Spirits Rising”), choreographed by Rosangela Silvestre,  Vera Passos, Shelby Williams-Gonzalez, and Marina Magalhäes.
Presented by Viver Brasil, at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood 90068.

Dancers: Laila Abdullah, Ashley Blanchard, Samad Guerra, Rachel Hernandez, Marina Magalhäes, Bianca Medina, Ajah Muhammad, Vera Passos, and Nagodé Simpson.
Singers: Felicia “Onyi” Richards, Emina Shimanuki, and Katia Moraes.
Musicians: Luiz Badaró, Simon D. Carroll, Kahlil Cummings, Bobby Easton, Marco Gibi Dos Santos, Alberto Lopez, and Fabio Santa de Souza.

For future dates and ongoing programs, check <www.viverbrasil.com>