Dance: Brasil Brasileiro, Sadler's Wells, London
The Pharaoh's Daughter, Royal Opera House, London
The Golden Age, Coliseum, London
An excuse for bump'n'grind
Sunday 06 August 2006
T he sexiness of Brazilians dancing hardly needs to be remarked on, but what constantly surprises is how innocent they make it seem. They can do attitude, but attitude is a far smaller ingredient in the eroticism of a Brazilian dance than it is with tango, salsa or almost anything similar. In samba, lambada, forró - a role-call of dirty dancing - being hot is simply natural. With Brasil Brasileiro, a compendium of Brazilian dance and music at Sadler's Wells, the Argentine director Claudio Segovia tries to tell the story of how samba evolved. The word samba itself is perhaps a combination of two African expressions meaning "to communicate with the spirits" and "pelvic thrust" but, after a brief flirtation with seance - in the exquisite opening batuque, where white-turbanned women melt in the circle of their partners' arms - the show cleaves pretty closely to the bump'n'grind. Indeed, there is an awful lot of cleaving going on.
In one of his earlier shows, Tango Argentino, Segovia similarly told the story of how his native dance evolved, but this slightly scholastic method doesn't work as well here, partly because of the vast amounts of geography he must cover in addition to the history. Several of the dances and musical styles appear displaced. Capoeira, for instance, with its lightning roundhouse kicks, is exciting to watch and has obvious links to hip hop, which also appears, but seems out on a distant branch of samba's family tree.
The show also limps occasionally when Segovia tries to prove that samba can be melancholic. But whereas Buenos Aires has more psychiatrists per head of population than any city outside the United States, Rio probably has the fewest. Brazilians don't fetishize their misery so much, or mistake it for spiritual depth - melancholia is something you try to fit in between parties.
Elza Soares, the once nationally-reviled mistress of the legendary footballer Garrincha, and a kind of Brazilian Edith Piaf, has certainly known despair. With her leonine head, growling voice and intermittently distant eyes, she sounds like she is simultaneously channelling the spirits of Cleo Laine and Louis Armstrong. Nevertheless, when she sings, and Tereza Azevedo, Ivi Mesquita and Pamella Vidal join her, their bodies shuddering like cars starting up on Christmas morning, they vividly illustrate the old saying, that it takes 43 muscles to frown, but only a few - specifically, the glutes - to raise a smile.
There is a lot more to smile at - whether the kid-in-a-sweet-shop insatiability of the whip-thin Elaine Lúcia, working her way through five suitors in record time, or the irresistible lubricity of Marcelo Chocolate as the dapper Latin American rake and folk-hero, Malandro, with his dainty spatted feet and his grin like a flick-knife. (Marcelo Chocolate, Ivi Mesquita - you hardly need to see the show, when merely reading the cast-list is a sensual pleasure in its own right.) With three more singers alongside Soares, a large, brass- and percussion-heavy band and more than two dozen seriously uninhibited dancers, Brasil Brasileiro seduces even as it fails to instruct. Occasionally Sadler's Wells will rip out its stalls seating, and misses a trick by not doing so here. Brasil Brasileiro is an invitation as much as a performance - it feels unnatural to watch it sitting down.
At the Royal Opera House, the Bolshoi Ballet opened with its own brand of rabble-rousing. The Pharaoh's Daughter is a cheerfully deranged fantasy about an English explorer who, after taking a hit from an opium pipe, dreams that he is transported back in time and falls in love with an Egyptian princess. It was Marius Petipa's first big hit in St Petersburg in 1862, when it lasted 4 hours and needed a cast of 400. Neglected and eventually lost under the Soviets, it was remade in 2000 by the French choreographer and director Pierre Lacotte, who has kept little of the original except its Pugni score and its absurdity.
There is the personification of the River Nile, for example, like disco-Jehovah in his white beard and silver catsuit, as well as a lion and a cobra, each meant to be terrifying, that would have the most undiscriminating viewers of CBBC throwing their rusks at the telly in derision. And even among a cast trimmed to a mere 200, the production has more costume changes than London Fashion Week. It would take the genius of a born-again Petipa to navigate any meaningful choreography through that lot, and instead Lacotte usually settles for swapping solos and duets about in a prolonged game of anything-you-can-do, I-can-do-better. At least the Bolshoi is blessed in its choice of players, and one of the unexpected pleasures of opening night was seeing Svetlana Zakharova, the most consistently awe-inspiring ballerina of her generation, being upstaged with some regularity by Maria Alexandrova, as her slave.
This is not to say that Zakharova's princess was less than stunning. The physique of dancers is very different now, but in spirit she accomplishes what Lacotte does not: she takes Russian ballet back to its Imperial golden age, with dancing so assured that, however impossible the balance, or prolonged the lift, she somehow manages to make her partner look like an optional extra. All the more credit to Sergei Filin for holding his own, as the drugged-up lover, with such buoyant nonchalance.
As the Bolshoi arrived, the Mariinsky/Kirov bowed out from the Coliseum, with another lost-and-remade ballet, Shostakovich's football-based The Golden Age. It opened well, with tenderly mirrored steps for a reunited pair of ageing lovers and their younger, remembered selves. But as it wore on the choreographer, Noah D Gelber, ran out of ideas until at last there was nothing to watch but a projected photograph of Shostakovich, dwindling and fading like the close-down dot on an old-fashioned black-and-white television set. What began with a promise of champagne ended with the assurance of a tepid mug of cocoa.
'Brasil Brasileiro', Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0870 7377 737) to 20 Aug
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