Earth, Skin and Fire: The Playful Sensuality of Samba Fogo’s Elementos
On October 10 and 11, local dance company Samba Fogo presented Elementos at the Rose Wagner Center for The Performing Arts. The program took the form of a showcase of different styles of Brazilian music and dance. Various pieces highlighted expressive forms from a variety of regions and cultures within the larger frame of colonial Brazil. The show was advertised as family-friendly, and there was certainly no shortage of restless children in the audience. While initially disconcerting, one had only to lighten up a bit to settle in and enjoy the event on its own terms.
The show opened with a staging of an indigenous Brazilian creation narrative describing the descent of the gods of the air to the watery Earth. This event was staged in the form of a death-defying and gasp-inducing silk acrobatics routine, performed beautifully and (to my relief) expertly by Samantha and Lance Nielsen. To say this overture set a very high standard for the rest of the show to maintain is an understatement, but to the great credit of Artistic Director Lorin Hansen and Musical Director Mason Aeschbacher, the rest of the evening’s program was equally captivating. Rather than attempting further to stun the audience however, the company chose instead to delight it by offering a series of pieces designed to exhibit the color and expressivity of Brazilian culture.
The spoken text accompanying the music and dancing gave the show a somewhat didactic feeling, though this did not seem inappropriate considering the age of most audience members. If anything, this approach allowed older audience members to recall and relive the novelty and excitement once held for them at cultural events as youngsters. This was especially the case when the company invited a number of children from their summer dance program to join them onstage. I was made to recall the suits of children’s music written by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. In a more standard dance performance, the presence of children onstage might have seemed forced and mawkish, as is so often the case in theater. But in a casual and playful event such as Elementos, the result felt unobtrusive and charming, even healthy.
Among the highlights of the evening was a series of fire dances, performed by Lorin Hansen and other members of the company. Fire alone on stage rarely fails to be impressive. Therefore, it is a tribute to Hansen’s charisma and skills, as well as those of her seconds, that such props never upstaged the actual dancing. Other numbers employed sticks and machetes, or aestheticized fighting techniques, in movements that were at once risky and sensuous. A constant subtext of sex and violence seemed wholly appropriate to the presentation of a culture deeply rooted in nature worship and slavery. I am pleased to report that the spoken text did not evade these topics. However, such references remained incidental. Along these lines, the sexuality of the carnival dancers was consciously subdued—their usual showgirl costumes being exchanged for silver tights and flapper gowns. Overall, the mood of the performance was more light and playful than oppressive or primal.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the show was the presence of actual musicians onstage. Whereas most modern dance continues to resort to pre-recorded music, there appears to be a rising trend toward integrating dance and live musical performance on stage. Mason Aeschbacher, about whom I wrote an extensive article last year, seems to be very much on the forefront of this local development. His musicians are consistently well trained and radiate an enthusiasm and sense of goodwill, which is highly ingratiating and frankly contagious. Even more reticent members of the audience found themselves clapping and singing along with the performers. It was encouraging to see that such unselfconscious fun can had at a cultural event in Salt Lake. Rather than mere gawkers, the audience became a very real and lively part of the performance.