Capoeira was created in 16th-century Brazil by African slaves as a way, many scholars have argued, for them to train in martial arts without their owners' knowledge. The dances appear to be a gamelike conversation between performers, with fierce kicks, eye-popping acrobatics and other fightlike moves performed to rhythmic music that incorporates elements of samba.
These days, Capoeira is more likely to be found in a school or a gym than in the street.
"It's become far more athletic," says Jelon Vieira, 55, DanceBrazil's artistic director and choreographer. "And now it has spread all over the world."
Vieira started practicing Capoeira in his hometown, Santo Amaro da Purificação, Bahia, in northern Brazil, when he was 10 years old. "Capoeira was not held in very high regard back in the 1960s," Vieira remembers. "I told my mother I was playing soccer, and she believed me when I came home dirty and sweaty."
He eventually went to the United States to study with Alvin Ailey, José Limón and other pioneers of modern dance. In 1975, at Ailey's suggestion, he launched DanceBrazil.
"Ailey actually named my company," the choreographer recalls. "He told me to keep it simple."
Vieira tries to maintain Capoeira's essential ingredients — particularly the daring, risk-taking quality that gives the dance its edginess — while presenting a thoroughly theatrical show. Still, a considerable amount of adapting is required.
"The dances need a good amount of shaping and polish to avoid becoming too repetitious," says Deborah Quanaim, co-director of the World Dance Institute at Central College Houston Community College.
She points out that Capoeira is traditionally performed in a semi-circle, which works remarkably well on stage. Vieira maintains the circle formation in Ritmo, but also plays with new, more complex formations.
Capoeiristas improvise wild cartwheels and flips, but the stage demands more planning. "Our show is 95 percent choreographed," Vieria says. "We improvise at the very end so the audience can see and feel the energy of the street."
While DanceBrazil performers are trained in ballet, modern dance and Capoeira, the troupe also includes some traditional capoeiristas to maintain authenticity. Original music by Jarbas Bittencourt will be played on traditional instruments.
São Paulo native Mauricio Campos, artistic director of the Brazilian Arts Foundation in the Heights, has taken Capoeira from the studio back to the street. One of Vieira's students, Campos teaches and has his dancers perform at street fairs and festivals. No matter where it's performed, the spirit of Capoeira remains the same.
"It's about a freedom of expression and way of being alive at every moment," Campos says.
DANCEBRAZIL IN RITMOPresented by Society for the Performing Arts
• When: 8 p.m. Thursday
• Where: Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana
• Tickets: $22-$52; 713-227-4772 or www.spahouston.org
Reprinted from The Houston Chronicle.