[editors note: in August 2016, Viver Brasil performed at two distinct venues in the city of Los Angeles, in lauded events. As part of An Olympic Carnival: Sergio Mendes and 50 years of Brazil 66’ the company animated the Hollywood Bowl and in Moves After Dark dance series at the Music Center, the company won critical acclaim for a new dance work. During that week, VB veteran Margit Edwards returned to LA to assist the company in its preparation for the shows. Currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Theatre at CUNY Graduate Center, here are her thoughts on the relevance of an art practice that proclaims that Black Lives Matter.]
Over the short span of one week, the range of black body politics embedded in the DNA of Afro Brazilian culture came to the fore through dynamic performances by Viver Brasil Dance Company: in the gorgeous, expansive Bloco Afro choreography of Vera Passos at the Hollywood Bowl and the following week, a courageous choreographic connection was made by Shelby Williams-Gonzales between the Orixas and the Black Lives Matter movement in her piece “Revealed,” performed at the Music Center.
Racial politics have always been a part of this sacred socio-cultural material. Black lives indeed matter in the Afro Brazilian complex of music and dance practices that include the Orixás and Blocos Afro. Viver Brasil’s new work “Revealed,” by Shelby Williams-Gonzales, brings the Iyabas (The Queens), down to earth. In the piece, Iansã-Oya, Oxum and Oba, also known as the “Three Wives of Xangó,” are deployed to guide the Departed: young men and women who have been killed by police and government sanctioned violence. The Iyabas work so that the spirits of the Departed will be valued, even though their bodies were not. As they guide the Departed,Iansã-Oyá, Oxum and Oba demonstrate the power of the principles they represent: recognition and veneration of The Dead/our Ancestors; beauty and self-love; and steadfast resistance—all in warrior fashion. In the work, the costume that traditionally signals the arrival of each Orixá is removed, revealing women, mothers, underneath the layers of fabric and rhythm. It is when Iansã-Oyá, Oxum and Oba transform into the mothers of those who have been slain that we see divinity in the humans and humanity in the divine.
A reaction to the inequity and violence perpetrated on Black bodies at the time, Blocos Afro in the 1970’s and 80’s emerged to embody the political reality that Black lives mattered. Looking to participate in the global Black Power and independence movements sweeping the colonial world, Black Brazilians connected to the African Atlantic circuit. Embracing the power of Reggae music coming from the Caribbean, Afro-Brazilians drew from their own sonic history of Quilombos, Candomblé and Afoxé to create collective communities that took to the streets with the goal of taking up space. Putting their bodies in the street to claim carnival as a space for Afro Brazilian culture, for Black Brazilian bodies, this new resultant sound is called Samba Reggae and the groups, Blocos Afro, or Black Blocks.
Over the years, the music Samba Reggae and the dance, simply referred to as “Afro,” along with several of the original groups have achieved high commercial status in the World Music market helping to obscure the political import of these practices. But today, a Black consciousness reawakens in the US and in Brazil. Many of the patrons at the Hollywood Bowl may not have known that just under the surface of the smiling dancing bodies on the stage and in the aisles was in fact a call to arms, or better yet, a call to hearts, minds and bodies that Black Lives Matter.
But some of them heard it.
The contemporary Bloco Afro choreography by Vera Passos demonstrated that the joy of movement and music is an expressive right of oppressed people. Fully realized, fully extended, in large numbers, taking up space, the political act of Bloco Afro is in its very presence, underscored by the expansiveness of the arms, of the torso, the unison of each individual into a beautiful, organized, and powerful statement of collective power.
In 1999, I was on the stage as one of the dancers for Viver Brasi in two performances at the Hollywood Bowl, opening for Carlinhos Brown. We were performing a samba reggae in honor of his famous group, Timbalada. While on stage, I suddenly understood what these Bloco’s were all about. I knew that I had found a creative, spiritual and political home. With Viver Brasil, I could dance my politics. In 2016 that is still true and even more pertinent.
These two performances by Viver Brasil in August represent, on the one hand, the consistent development of the artistic vision of a Los Angeles dance company and, on the other, they remind us that there are artistic models of collective action and spiritual support that can be drawn on to uphold the value of Black lives; it is a rich and powerful artistic history. The question for me is, how can we get the current political movements to see that collective action must include the artistic voice of the people as well?