The Brazilian choreographer Augusto Soledade adheres to and draws inspiration from both the Afro-Brazilian culture and religion of his roots, and the rigorous physical discipline and invention of modern dance. At his company Augusto Soledade Brazzdance’s 10th anniversary performance on Friday at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Liberty City, he paid homage to two pioneering older artists who inspired and mentored him – an act of honoring the elders which is a custom in traditional dance, but increasingly (and unfortunately) less so in contemporary dance.
On hand were Clyde Morgan, a former performer with foundational modern dance choreographer Jose Limon, who was also a pioneer in researching and practicing African and African diaspora dance in the United States; and Garth Fagan, the Jamaican-born choreographer and teacher who has become famous for choreographing The Lion King, a fact which has obscured his achievement in creating a deep, powerful and independent body of work. Morgan was Soledade’s teacher in Brazil, and ironically the American artist persuaded the Brazilian student to study the dances of candomble, ultimately bringing him to the State University of New York in Brockport, where Soledade discovered Fagan’s work.
The two works presented Friday, Dreaming Amazonia (2009), dedicated to Fagan, and Altars (2006), dedicated to Morgan, showed Soledade’s own vision in melding African and modern dance. By carrying on his mentors’ ideas in his own way, Soledade honors them doubly.
Amazonia is meant to represent the clash of the Amazon jungle and urban Brazil. It’s kinetically and compositionally dense – sometimes to the point of being busy. But it’s also satisfyingly packed with intense, inventive movement, with occasional unnerving images that resonate deeply.
It starts with Brazzdance’s six excellent dancers (Roderick Calloway, Veronica Cato, Rashidi Lewis, Simon Phillips, Manuela Sanchez, and Brittany Williams), arguing around a plastic tub, their voices and gestures growing wilder and more vehement, until they halt abruptly with a startling shout of "shut up!!!!" Are they fighting over resources, what to do? Wearing Estela Vrankovich’s tight trunks and tops with vine-like seams, they dance in a group, with a frenetic, repeated sequence of pumping knees, hips, arms, and flipping, upside down action drawn from the danced battles of capoeira, as Sanchez does a slow, flowing solo of long balances and folding limbs. That juxtaposition of frantic and calm, of group and solo, repeats a number of times and ways. It could represent the contrast between frantic city and slow-paced nature, or an individual amidst a crowd. Orlando Garcia’s score, a prickly, breathy blend of sounds, creates an often uneasy atmosphere.
Calloway leads the others in an undulating arch from a deep lunge, a snake-like, animal movement with a ritualistic tone. Williams dives headfirst into the tub, her legs and torso waving slowly, like a plant. Calloway flips her out, and one by one, all the dancers but Cato clamber in, squeezing together in unbearable proximity, arms reaching, bodies squirming – like plants clambering for light in the jungle, or people packed into a crowd or slum. When Cato pulls them out, they fight to get back in. She and Calloway do a long, slow duet, in contrast to the antagonistic-seeming duos in the rest of the dance. At one point, he does a headstand between her thighs as she squats deeply, upside down against her body, an extraordinary display of strength and control, of interlocking and opposing force. That’s followed by audience volunteers hanging small potted plants on bamboo screens on the back wall.
The dense and repeated group segments and movement motifs make Amazonia feel too long. Its impact would be heightened by editing. Still, it resonates in unnerving ways. Several times, the dancers sit motionless, leaning deeply back from bent open legs, still as stones, or as those plants against the wall. Amazonia ends with that stillness – at the end of things, maybe, or the beginning.
In Altars, Soledade sets imagery and dancing inspired by candomble with soaring J.S. Bach cantatas, imbuing the dancing with a sense of sacred fervor and, sometimes, a kind of humorous irony. It opens with Calloway, in baggy African print pants (Vrankovich again did the costumes), bare chest dusted with white powder, face also dusted under a white skull cap, in a solemn solo. He’s joined by Williams and Sanchez, then Simon, in identical costumes; they ambulate in low, squatting movements, torsos snaking, hovering on one foot, leaning into each other with wide open mouths. They seem like statues come to life.
That’s followed by Calloway and Cato, in cream tops and pink briefs, in a mesmerizing duet. Eyes closed, they slide and arch around each other as if feeling cues from each other’s skin, with an astonishing intimacy that’s both mental and sensual, though in a purely physical (not sexual) way. Sanchez and Williams build an altar onstage, with cloths, statuettes, and vases where audience members place white and red roses. Calloway, Cato and Sanchez vault and play, rapidly abstracting bits of traditional African dance – shimmying shoulders, flipping arms – perfectly synchronized with the rippling vocals of the Bach cantata, even as the kind of dancing they do stands in cultural contrast. But then Lewis enters, a kind of god in white loincloth and huge medallion, halting the dancing as he stands behind the altar, motionless but powerful.
Soledade’s dancers are terrific, with a level of technique, strength, finish and intensity rarely seen in Miami. The intense, elegant Calloway, a former member of Fagan’s troupe; Cato, a dynamic, commanding New World School of the Arts graduate; and Sanchez, dramatic and gorgeous, are particularly good.
Their quality was on par with that of the rest of the program. There was a sense of dedication and depth to the evening – the honoring of two elder artists, the finish and accomplishment in the music, costumes and dancing, the ideas underlying the dances. The theater at the African Heritage Cultural Center, where Brazzdance has enjoyed the luxury of a residency where they’re able to rehearse for hours each day, offered Spartan production and lighting resources (though designer Gary Lund did a fine job with limited equipment.) Both Brazzdance and the Center deserve better resources and attention for presenting programs like this.
If you go
What: Augusto Soledade Brazzdance 10th anniversary concert
When: 8 p.m. Saturday May 23
Where: African Heritage Cultural Arts Center - Black Box Theater, 6161 N.W. 22nd Ave., Miami
Info: $20, or $10 student and seniors; brazzdance.com or at the door.