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Tucson Weekly Orts Goes Brazilian

Modern Dance Meets Centuries-Old Ritualized Combat.

By Margaret Regan

NOVEMBER 23, 1998:  HOT AFRICAN RHYTHMS and Portuguese chants warmed the Orts studio on a blustery day last week.

Two pairs of capoeiristas, practitioners of a centuries-old African-Brazilian martial art, grappled with each other on the dance floor. Moving to the beat of an atabaque (drum), the four tramped around in circles, bended knees bringing them low to the ground. After every full circle, they confronted each other with sticks in a ritualized combat called jogo, and the banging of stick against stick punctuated the percussive mix of chant and drum. Meantime, three Orts dancers pivoted on trapezes attached to the high ceiling, adapting their familiar movements--legs pointed outward, backs curved--to the hypnotic beat.

Modern dance was having a meeting of the minds with capoeira.

"There are a lot of parallels in the way the body is used in an efficient sense (in the two forms)," Orts artistic director Anne Bunker said when the rehearsal ended, and the panting performers were stepping into street clothes. "They're both from the earth. They both have a grounding and a centering of the body."

Added capoeira teacher Dondi Marble, "Capoeira has leg kicks, tumbles, cartwheels and a suspended line called angola, just like the African country."

"Breaking Ground," a new collaborative piece by Bunker and Marble that even last week wasn't completely nailed down, will bring the electric mix of modern dance and capoeira to Tucson audiences this weekend. A collaboration by Orts and Marble's Grupo Capoeira Malandragem, the 34-minute work will be performed at the PCC Center for the Arts Proscenium Theatre by eight Orts dancers, seven capoeiristas and a half-dozen musicians on traditional Afro-Brazilian instruments.

The new dance will be the second half of Urban Topography, a concert that also will reprise "Urban Gaits," a mixed-media performance piece about life in downtown Tucson. Put together a year ago by five Tucson artists as an evening-length work, "Urban Gaits" is equal parts music, dance, video and spoken word. This year, the critically acclaimed piece will be a shorter version, one that Bunker edited down for the company's trip last spring to Costa Rica.

Capoeirista Marble and Bunker first met through a mutual friend about two years ago, back when Marble was "teaching in the park at Fourth Avenue and had about 10 students." Bunker invited him to offer classes in her studio, and now he's training about 70 Tucsonans (including Bunker) in classes offered almost every day. Marble, whose capoeira name is Professor Enxu, learned the art from Mestre Acordeon, a Brazilian transplanted to Berkeley. Devised hundreds of years ago by African slaves in Brazil, capoeira is far more than the sum of its physical movements, Marble said.

"There's a whole philosophy and religion behind it. In Brazil, the religion is a mix of African and Catholicism and it grew out of that."

Initiations, for instance, are called batizados, and while the ceremony looks nothing like the pouring of holy water on a baby's head, devotees take a new name. Among the slaves, "it was performed in different settings, for courtship, for battle," Marble said. "The training is dance-like and gymnastic but the function is fighting. We perform it to make it look like a dance, and to conceal its true function--conceal it from the slave masters."

Capoeira prospered in the country's thick jungles and mountains, in the remote camps of runaway slaves. Some of these communities survived for decades, Marble said. When Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, capoeira came to the cities with its practitioners. "They did what they had to survive," Marble noted, and the authorities, associating it with street crime, tried to suppress it. Nowadays, capoeiristas study not only movement, but history, the Portuguese language of its chants, and music.

For the Orts concert, the Grupo musicians will play the berimbau, a stringed instrument made from a gourd, along with drums, tambourines and bells. A tape of the call-and-response capoeira songs will alternate with composer Chuck Koesters' computer samplings of the same music, a mix that mimics the fusion of modern dance and capoeira on the stage.

"In 'Bridging Worlds,' the way we did it, the capoeiristas are the human element," said Bunker. "The dancers are the jungle, the flora, fauna and animals. It's like the merging of two different worlds, but we respond and react to each other."

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