Photo: David Terry
A hive of musicians, sardined on an elevated platform, inhabited a small back corner of the stage. Clad in loose-fitting, white clothing, the dozen or so performers were like a menagerie of sailors aboard a tiny vessel, wildly drumming and singing, as a myriad of dancers were cast into the sea-like stage before them.
Pegando Fogo, a Portuguese phrase that means “catching fire,” offered a scintillating fusion of capoeira (an afro-brazilian martial art), fire dancing, carnival samba and Brazilian Orixa dance accompanied by Brazilian and Afro-Brazilian music. All of these genres, presented by the local Samba Fogo Music and Dance Company, were brilliantly assembled on a stage lit with dramatic colors, often reminiscent of the changing sky.
Immediately apparent in the performance was the freeness of the dancers’ movements—their unfettered costumes breezing around the organic, childlike motions of their twisting and bending limbs. I’m no dance connoisseur, but it seems that other forms of dance, like ballet, value a great deal of restraint and control—prizing bound feet, lean bodies and flawless form. In stark contrast, the Pegando Fogo dancers were curvy and muscular, barefoot, sexy and alive in a very primal way. Their movements were undomesticated in the most glorious sense, both tribal and powerful.
The assemblage of platformed musicians, arms rhythmically flailing, stood behind lead singer Carla Jaynes. Her voice, smooth and enchanting, weaved through the choreographed movements of dancers, though she stood perfectly still, arms hanging lifeless to her sides, in solemn contrast to the dynamic acrobatics on stage.
A performance early in the show called “Orixa” featured an array of dancers; each embodied the energy of a different Afro-Brazilian deity, portraying the natural powers of each god or goddess. Another segment featured dancers who passed glowing flames, revolving them at dizzying speeds as the stage lights faded. Finally, only points of entrancing orange light moved in the darkness. Later, capoeira dancers cartwheeled around each other, as if a child tossed a handful of bouncing jacks onto the stage, each one miraculously avoiding the other’s appendages. Their fight was a graceful one, as they danced as if anticipating the energy of each movement. During one song, they assembled in a line like break dancers, taking turns to demonstrate their skills to the awestruck crowd. However, they poignancy peaked when they performed as a group, a dozen legs powerfully slicing the air, mere inches from their opponents.
These athletes, animated and impassioned, could arouse wonder in any audience member. Beside me, climbing rambunctiously over the cushioned seats of the Rose Wagner balcony, was a young boy, mystified with the performance, asking ceaseless questions to his mother. He seemed certain the dancers were magical. In the seats to my left rested an older couple, speaking Portuguese in hushed voices. The wife shook her arms joyously in the air as the dancers writhed and somersaulted onstage. Though silent throughout most of the performance, some attendees stood and danced during spirited moments. The audience cheered after spectacular acrobatics—it was an atmosphere that permitted both awe-inspired reverence and jovial participation.
The final performance featured a line of carnival samba dancers, scantily dressed, in sparkling bikinis and massive, feathered headdresses. The women of the troupe had been transformed into shimmering and shimmying goddesses, their fit bodies showcasing the physical gains of routine energetic dancing. After the show, these dazzling women along with the other performers emerged from behind the curtains and met with audience members. A gaggle of teenage boys, teeming with testosterone and transfixed, gathered to decide which samba queen was their favorite. One even bragged he had made eye contact with a particular diva.
Throughout the performance, I sensed I was witness to some very sacred, native ritual. I watched not as a voyeur, however, but as a member of humanity and participant, these dances somehow tying us all to our ancient, tribal roots. It was as magical as the boy beside me believed it to be, a hallucinogenic, primitive Cirque du Soleil of incantations, celebration and ceremony.
Check out more events presented by Samba Fogo and ways to get involved in the dancing at sambafogo.com.