Balé Folclórico da Bahia aims to give an authentic taste of Afro-Brazilian history and culture with every high kick and undulation that unfolds onstage. Using drumming and religious chanting as part of its soundtrack, the company's repertoire explodes with high-energy folkloric movement, electric sambas and lightning-fast capoeira moves exchanged between muscle-bound men in white. Like its diverse choreography, costumes range from colorful African garb to flirty Carnival and tribal attire worn against cinnamon brown skin. They are Brazilian, they are African -- together with a sultry Portuguese influence they make up the rich culture in the eastern coastal state of Bahia.
"We have to be very proud of our people, and we have to show to the rest of the world how beautiful our culture is," says the group's founding director Walson Botelho. As part of its 25th anniversary world tour, Balé Folclórico is making a familiar stop on Friday at the Arsht Center. The performance will showcase some of the company's most celebrated numbers, such as "Samba de Roda," "Capoeira" and "Afixirê."
Miami is one of 30 cities on the U.S. leg of the tour, but coming here is more of a homecoming. "I feel very at home, not only because of the Brazilian population, but Miami has a number of ex-dancers of the company that I could create another company with them," said Botelho. A former dancer, Botelho started Balé Folclórico after receiving his degree in cultural anthropology. Paying homage to the African slaves who shaped the country, especially Bahia, has been his inspiration for the company's repertoire.
"The slaves brought with them their spirits, their energy. That was what really formed the Bahia culture," said Botelho. "These people came to Brazil under such harsh conditions. They were the energy and culture of the nation. Without the African slaves I don't think Brazil would be the same."
With the second largest population of African descendants in the world and 80 percent of the Brazilian's black population, according to Botelho, Bahia is the country's epicenter for Afro-Brazilian music, dance and religion. "We are a unique dance company; Bahia just exists in Bahia," says Botelho, who when scouting for dancers cares less about their formal dance training, but looks for what he calls that homegrown "Bahian soul."
"It's the way of life they've known since they were born. You will see it reflected in the smiles, the way they walk, in the color of their skin." Not to mention the way they move. Dancers who come from varied training backgrounds are dynamic and athletic in their execution.
"Usually we spend two years to create a new piece just researching, because we can't present the wrong thing. We have to be very careful about what we are doing and presenting on stage."
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Balé Folclórico da Bahia comes to the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami on Fri. at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $35 to $65. Call 305-949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org.
--Kai T. Hill, artburstmiami.com
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