In Conversation: Brazilian Dance in a Canadian Context

Adrianna Yanuziello and Newton Moraes By Kate Morris
  • Members of Newton Moraes Dance Theatre in Brazil, The Land of Tears and Soul by Newton Moraes / Photo by Cylla von Tiedermann
  • Members of Newton Moraes Dance Theatre in Brazil, The Land of Tears and Soul by Newton Moraes / Photo by Cylla von Tiedermann
  • Brazil, The Land of Tears and Soul by Newton Moraes / Photo by Cylla von Tiedermann
  • Adrianna Yanuziello

In the lead-up to the FIFA World Cup of soccer in Brazil editor Kate Morris sat down with two Toronto-based dancer-choreographers – Adrianna Yanuziello and  Newton Moraes – to discuss Brazilian dance.

Can you speak a little about Brazilian dance in Canada? And outline similarities and differences in your training in these distinct traditions and forms?

Newton Moraes: From my point of view, I want to try to educate audiences, students, dancers, creators that there is much more than samba and capoeira. Both are very famous forms, but there are other styles of Brazilian dance that are not much practised, even in Brazil.

Adrianna Yanuziello: In the Silvestre Technique – it’s technique. We use jetés, we do pirouettes, but Silvestre also studied in India and Cuba. If we do a movement it is not just for the form, there is a deeper connection to folklore. 

NM: I was speaking with two friends in Brazil – one is the director of a university dance program and the other is a presenter – they agree that many people want to do ballet and jazz, but there are artists in Brazil, much like ourselves, that want to try to bring forward those art forms that are important if lesser known. It’s the same in Canada. I would ask why don’t we practise Iroquois or other First Nations dances? I asked when I was at York, ‘Why are we doing ballet? Why don’t we do Canadian dance?’ Of course in Brazil it is the same. Styles that are somehow bigger or have a bigger contingent – those are the ones that are going to have more followers. You often see ballet, or even hip hop, on TV. Brazilians are doing lots of hip hop; there are Brazilian styles of street dance. But in Brazil, just as in Canada, we have immigrants from all over the world. All of the dance styles that Canadian immigrants bring with them, we also have in Brazil. So the question is about how to integrate these forms in accessible ways, while taking away the stigma of some of these dance forms. For example, if I just do what I danced at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre (STDT), well, that was beautiful, but I also want to do something for myself, open to seeing what is around. 

AY: As a Canadian, there is a huge separation between feeling and expressing. Even samba is not just steps, it is also a feeling. I feel the batterie [drumming] in my feet and in my legs, and you can pick it up in the air, in the street.

NM: I would say, in Brazil, society is more danceable. In Canada, we need to go to a studio to learn styles, but in Brazil we go to the centre or to Carnival and you learn on the streets. You don’t need to go and pay for dance class.

What are some of the important dance forms in Brazil and how have they been received?

AY: If I tell someone in Brazil that I study Afro-Brazilian dance, that I dance the Orixás, sometimes I get a response that is kind of questioning. You get that response sometimes even in Salvador, where Afro-Brazilian culture is so strong. But, if I say, ‘I’m a classical dancer, I do ballet,’ then people say ‘Oh, that’s very nice.’ One of my biggest callings now is Orixás dance. I got to see it first in the schools, and then I got to see it in the terreiro [the temple] and that’s something that is great for students to see.

NM: Yes, dance happens in a church-type space, the terreiro. People come there, and they will have different problems, and the priests are kind of like doctors. Sometimes there are ceremonies where we dance. In general, it is mostly for the underprivileged. Even before the abolition of slavery, this was a taboo form, but it is becoming much more open. I come from a lineage of Batuque that was called Cambinda. In Cambinda, when you’re dancing, you dance for the living but you also dance for the dead. So the dead we call eguns – a spirit of the dead person for whom we have great respect. We create a table with all kinds of amazing food and things that this person loved, as well as a doll that represents the person. Then we start dancing counter-clockwise around the table. The drums are loose and strong and it can be very scary.

AY: Mestre King was the first to put Orixás dance into the schools and universities; before that they were doing classical dance while the Orixás were in the terreiro. There is this fear with the Orixás.

NM: That is because it is misunderstood, though it is becoming less so. There are so many Christians in Brazil who say that it is evil simply because there is drumming!

How does your training in contemporary dance inform or affect your relationship to Brazilian dance?

NM: There are a number of things that I learned at STDT. Like Graham technique! Sometimes they would say ‘be generous,’ and I would say ‘I am a generous person, but what do you mean?’ But then I found my own way of expressing my physicality relative to what they were saying. For example, in ballet there are set lines. If you don’t do the lines properly then it is like you’re not a dancer. But there are many ways of expressing and I try to move away from conformity. For example, I love butoh because they work with the grotesque. Of course I am Brazilian, but I am also a citizen of the world and although I am interested in Brazilian dance, I am interested in anything that is good.

AY: My teachers at Ryerson would say, ‘You know, I don’t know if you’re going to be a dancer. You have so much tension and you can’t let go.’ And I think that was a spiritual thing; Rosangela broke that shell. When I went to Brazil, I saw that they dance like tomorrow might not happen. They give everything and it’s complete surrender. Newton, I have felt that from you too. When you dance, you are completely in the moment. And there was something about Brazil that brought me there. This is what dance is – dance has no separation from your life, it’s the same. Rosangela always says ‘I am the dance,’ and so I am always dancing. We are dancing right now!

NM: In Brazil, I see people from different walks of life doing the same. We drum all night long and chant and dance. There is no way to describe that in words: it is beyond comprehension. Sometimes the people that are dancing don’t have technique per se, but when they dance it is just mesmerizing. This is what I try to bring to my dance and my teaching. The gods are not just in the universe and the magma – god is in you. I’m not trying to educate people to believe that this spirituality is better than others. It’s just my way of describing what dance is for me.

AY: I would be in ballet class and my teachers would say, ‘You’re a bird. Now you’re a princess.’ But I didn’t connect with that – the spirituality was missing. Then I went to Brazil and did the Silvestre Technique and dance changed; it became bigger than just this idea of a structure and steps.

NM: It’s fascinating because although it is different words, it is somehow similar for me. It’s how I find my motivation, my force, my energy, because when I practise my Afro-Brazilian culture in Brazil it has a certain spirituality.

AY: We have Orixás dance movement class but we’re not teaching the sacred. Sometimes there is a sacred element but we do something else with it. Channelling Shango (the god of justice and fire), we use the essence of him but it is something else because it is contemporary. We take it and express that essence; we’re not just doing the steps.

NM: Yes, because otherwise it wouldn’t be creative, you would just be repeating forms.

AY: Yes, this is something I am working on in my art right now, to go further with it and ask what I want to say? As you were saying, Newton, the people dancing in the terreiro don’t necessarily have the technique, but they’re saying something, they’re expressing something. When you go and see a ceremony and you see people doing the traditional movements, the Orixás traditional form, they’re not going ‘5-6-7-8’ and they’re not doing the same footwork. They’re doing all different movements because they hear the song and they’re expressing what they hear.

What infrastructures exist in Canada for developing Brazilian dance? How are you differently supported by the dance community and the Brazilian community?

NM: My father was Indigenous Brazilian. I also love Afro-Brazilian, butoh … it doesn’t matter the art form. I love contemporary – Marie Chouinard, Peggy Baker, the great contemporary companies – but I also love Indigenous dance. If I see ballet, I don’t want to just see somebody kicking his or her leg. I want to feel that I would cry to see that leg. I always try to go for art, art, art! I never conform. My company was once invited to perform for big, international dance presenters. They were thinking, because there was a miscommunication, that we were going to do samba. The two dancers that worked with me at the time could have done samba, (they were both Brazilian and they could samba), but I chose to show Indigenous Brazilian dance. I wanted to show the pride of the tribe. The woman who invited me to come said, ‘This is not what I wanted! I wanted samba, the girls with little bikinis and lots of feathers.’ Then I realized that was not the direction I wanted to take for myself.

AY: The majority of my dancers are Ryerson graduates and we all have strong ballet and jazz backgrounds, though the majority of the work we do is samba. With the Copacabana jobs, it took me a while to accept that I was dancing –  performing and putting on shows in a restaurant. I have training! I went to Brazil! I’ve studied contemporary! And now I’m in a bikini and feathers dancing in front of people eating steak? And I was vegan at the time!

NM: I respect you, Adrianna, and that you do that because it is also a survival mechanism for you and there are many more opportunities. But I didn’t feel like doing that. When I met [choreographer and Tanztheater Wuppertal dancer] Jean Laurent Sasportes, he encouraged me to use my ancestry, to use those traditional moves in my choreography. In my work, I’m trying to hybridize Brazilian and Canadian dance. The last tour we did was in 2006 and we toured fourteen cities in Brazil. There were small theatres and beautiful, old, red-carpeted theatres. It was fascinating for my company members to see the culture. People really opened up to us as a Canadian company led by a Brazilian – but anyway my work is a mix of two cultures.   

AY: Rosangela Silvestre, my mentor, encouraged me to accept samba and to do it well. So, I started going to Rio and getting more involved with samba. What they do in Rio is a different world! There are fake butts, fake thighs, fake everything, but there is something real in their dancing. So I bring that back to Canada and I say let’s do it here! I teach authentic samba from Rio now and I get excited about it. I’ve also studied hip hop – it brings a part of that out in me. I am also a woman – I love the glitter! Sometimes it’s fun to get in the costume – you feel like you’re another person. I know there is skepticism about the commercial aspect of this work, but it does sell and a part of it is just show business.

NM: People expose much more skin in Brazil. It shows an uninhibited part of the society. Even in the favelas [slums], they have very little salary, but for three or four days during Carnival, they feel like kings and queens.

AY: The situations that we’re in at the clubs can certainly be difficult. We often get projections that are not positive. I try to make the dancers understand their sensuality but the way that we present samba isn’t vulgar. There are classical elements that are used (we use fourth position in our arms, for example) and there’s a bit of attitude. But there is also an element where you are like a goddess – the Orixás are a big part of samba too. You actually want to get a bit of worship going on so that the audience doesn’t feel like they can cross boundaries. I really try to get my dancers to feel like queens and from that feeling be able to say, ‘No, you can’t talk to me like that. You don’t get to look at me like that.’

NM: In relation to femininity and the feminist movement, women want to be empowered, work with men, perhaps dress more like men, but they may not feel the need to look beautiful. I think it’s wonderful that you have this femininity in your teaching, Adrianna. Brazilian dance has notions of femininity and masculinity – each of us have both and we work with that in our physicality. These kinds of dances were brought over from the African slaves, so there is pain and suffering, but they also have joy in their lives. Each of those dance movements describes different things related to their history, which is also applicable nowadays.

AY: We’ve been working on this documentary and the director asked if I consider my work ‘Brazilian.”’ I think in samba, yes, but not in my other work. I’m inspired by this culture but my work is not necessarily Brazilian work – what is Brazilian anyway? 

Adrianna Yanuziello is the founder and artistic director of Dance Migration, a Brazilian dance company specializing in samba. Hailing from Thornhill, Ont., Yanuziello is a graduate of the dance program at Ryerson University in Toronto. During her studies, she discovered Brazilian dance and began studying capoeira. She has trained extensively in Brazil in the Silvestre Technique with Rosangela Silvestre and draws on Brazilian forms such as Orixás, samba and samba-reggae in her choreography and teaching practice. She has an upcoming show at the Fleck Theatre in Toronto on October 17 to 18 and will be touring the Netherlands with her company in the fall.


Photo by Fehrnando Dos

Brazilian-born Newton Moraes admits that his formal training in modern and contemporary dance began relatively late in life. Migrating to Canada with his partner in 1991, Moraes attended the School of Toronto Dance Theatre at the age of twenty-eight where he benefited from the mentorship of Patricia Beatty and David Earle. In 1997, Moraes created his company, Newton Moraes Dance Theatre, which has performed and toured in Germany and Brazil. He is a recent recipient of a Toronto Arts Council grant. His company will perform Brazil, The Land of Tears and Soul, at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto on January 8, 2015.   

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