peace, love and enjoying life

by kellie abrahamson
Part dance, part martial arts, part community outreach, DanceBrazil is so much more than entertainment. The company brings traditional Afro-Brazilian dance and Capoeira to stages around the world, thrilling audiences and impacting communities by sharing the art forms with children through workshops that build self esteem and self-discipline. DanceBrazil’s artistic director Jelon Vieira, an acclaimed chorographer and master capoeirista, was kind enough to speak with EU about the company and what audiences can expect to see when they come to town on March 7th.
EU: Why did you decide to form DanceBrazil?
Jelon Vieira: I met Alvin [Ailey] when he was in Bahia in ’72. When I came to New York I looked for him and I told him I wanted to study more dance and he gave me a scholarship at the school and my goal was really to dance in his company. He kept saying “No, no, no you have to do your own work. You have a lot to offer to this country. There’s nothing Brazilian happening in this country.” At that time when you talked about Brazil you heard about soccer or you heard about Carmen Miranda or you heard about Sergio Mendes. Alvin said “You have to bring your culture; you have to bring Brazilian culture to the United States. You have to form your own dance company.” Finally I decided to take his advice… At that time the name was The Capoeiras of Bahia which was a very difficult name for Americans to pronounce. Nowadays Capoeira is more popular, it would be easy now, but then it was very difficult. Then the late Alvin Ailey came up with the idea of DanceBrazil… He said “DanceBrazil says what you are, says what you do, says what you’re all about.”
EU: How is DanceBrazil different from other companies?
JV: Whoever sees DanceBrazil is going to have a very unique experience. First of all you will see Brazilian culture presented in a very contemporary way. What makes a big difference between DanceBrazil and other dance companies is how I explore my culture but also how I get inspired by Capoeira, the martial arts I do. Capoeira is very new to this country… Capoeira movement is very different from any other dance you’ve seen. But also the African influence is something new that I bring to my work.
EU: Tell us more about Capoeira.
JV: Capoeira is a dance like a fight and a fight like a dance. It is a martial art that [came from] Africans who were brought to Brazil as slaves in the early 1500s. As a way of self-defense they had to develop this art form and camouflage it with music and dance… Many times when they were practicing Capoeira in front of the Portuguese, the Portuguese would enjoy it very much. They had no idea that was actually a martial art. Later on they used it to run away from the farms and from the slave quarters. Nowadays [Capoeira] is second to soccer as the most popular art form and martial art in Brazil. It’s actually considered now the national sport of Brazil.
EU: You’ve been credited with bringing Capoeira to the United States. What was the initial reception like?
JV: In the beginning it was very difficult because I came here just when the United States was in the fever of Bruce Lee. Kung-fu, karate, Tae Kwon Do, all the movies about martial arts and no one had ever heard about Capoeira… With the music, the dance, no one took it seriously as a martial art. They always thought “Oh, that’s just a dance”… I started going into karate tournaments, open tournaments to make people see and understand and believe that Capoeira, besides being a dance, is a martial art. In the beginning it was very, very difficult because no one had any idea.
EU: You formed an organization to train at-risk youth. Tell us about that.
JV: Capoeira Luanda is in Brazil… I look at it as social work. It’s my mission as an artist and as a human being to help others… I’m not a social worker but my work is like social work… I come in and I teach Capoeira for the kids and help them find the right path in life. [We] give them determination, give them self-esteem. [We] make them proud of themselves and who they are, their culture.
EU: What sort of audiences do you typically see at a DanceBrazil performance? Who does the show appeal to?
JV: We have a very diverse audience. Everywhere we go the audience is very mixed. In the mid-90s we started going to San Antonio, Texas. The mayor of San Antonio at that time, I cant remember his name, he was at our performance and he love so much how DanceBrazil attracted so much diverse community to the theatre. But [he] also [enjoyed] the workshop because San Antonio is so segregated; the black community sticks to themselves, the Hispanic community is on one side, white community on the other side. But when we introduced the workshop we brought everyone together. The mayor liked that so much that he helped [us collaborate with the Carver Community Cultural Center]. We did a long residency in San Antonio working with the community, bringing the community together.
EU: What do you hope people take away from DanceBrazil?
JV: I had an experience many years ago. I saw a dance company and they way they performed stayed in my mind, my heart up until today and at that time, for me, they were the best dance company in the world, the way they danced, the way they expressed themselves. In my direction, in my choreography, in my dance, that’s what I’m trying to pass on to my dancers: show the audience that you love what you do. Get into their hearts, get into their minds so they’ll never forget you; so they’ll always keep coming back … I want to leave a little bit of my culture with them… My work is all about peace, love and enjoying life.