Walson Botelho is on a mission. His aim is to show the world that Brazilian culture is about more than soccer, coffee, and the flashy exuberance of carnival. His medium: dance.

Last Thursday night, the audience at UCSB’s Campbell Hall shifted in their seats as the dancers of Botelho’s Balé Folclórico da Bahia processed down the aisles. Barefoot and cloaked in white garments, they moved slowly at first, singing and swaying. By the time they made it to the stage, their ritual had gathered momentum; men in loincloths collapsed to the ground, quaked, and fell into trances, while women in hoops raised their arms to the sky and spun in circles.

For an American audience expecting to see the samba danced by pretty girls in bikinis and oversized headdresses, this was an unfamiliar and startling display. Yet the opening to this program, Sacred Heritage, exemplified Botelho’s approach. He’s not just the director of Brazil’s best-known folkloric dance company; he’s also a cultural anthropologist. And while his company may provide entertainment, he’s primarily committed to sharing the artistic traditions of the region of Bahia as developed by African slaves during Portuguese colonial rule of Brazil.

So it was that Sacred Heritage began with an invocation to the deities of the Candomblé pantheon, represented by dancers dressed from head to toe in strips of raffia like wooly mammoths; dancers who stabbed the air with spears and uttered strange cries; dancers who hobbled across the stage like ancient elders.

As the evening progressed, the energy of the dances and the music built. In “Puxada de rede” (Fisherman’s dance), men in wide-brimmed hats lunged across the stage as if rowing a giant boat, while the women played beneath a fishing net, making it roll and tumble like waves on a choppy sea. “Berimbau” featured Fábio Santos, whose mastery of that single-stringed instrument elicited whoops and shouts from the audience, as did the gymnastic flips and fast-paced spinning kicks of “Capoeira.”

There are inherent challenges in professionalizing folk art, like how to maintain the authenticity of a villagers’ dance beneath the hot lights of a proscenium stage. Yet by the time this show built to its ecstatic crescendo, it was clear the samba that flowed from these bodies and instruments was far more than a performance designed to please. The dancers shook their hips, the drummers beat their drums, the audience rose to its feet, and “Samba reggae” became an authentic expression of joy.

That’s a heritage worth preserving.


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