A Chat With Walson Botelho, Founder of Balé Folclórico da Bahia
Tomorrow night in Cheverly, Md., Brazil’s Balé Folclórico da Bahia will fill the Publick Playhouse stage with 18 dancers, five percussionists, and three singers. It'll be for a special occasion: The company known for its martial arts-like leaps, bright costumes, and Afro-Brazilian percussion is touring for its 25th anniversary, and tomorrow night, it brings more than two decades of its work to the Prince George's County venue.
Balé Folclórico founder Walson Botelho was a dancer himself, starting at age 12. "I had danced in many companies, including out of the country, but I had the dream to create my own company to show all over the world my own culture, the popular culture of my land,” he writes via email. Botelho grew up in the state of Bahia on Brazil's east coast, and later went on to earn a degree in cultural anthropology. In Bahia, he says, "We [have] the second largest black population in the world. [Over nearly 400 years,] 10 million African slaves [were] transported to Brazil and 80 percent of them came to Bahia and lived here their entire life," he writes. "We are an African country inside Brazil. But the secret of the success of this richness was the mix of the indigenous and Portuguese influences. That is why we are unique and without competition."
Half of the company is made up of new dancers who came on in early 2012; others have been involved for four or five years, and toured the United States with the group in 2011. Two of the pieces on the program—"Origin Dance" and "Maculelê"—are significantly older, having been devised 25 years ago. Yet Botelho says the presentation this time might be better than it was in the early days. “With the evolution of the company and dancers' [improved] technical development, each of the pieces that were created had a kind of upgrade in its contents," he writes. "Dancers receive much more information [now]," he writes, "and they are much more prepared to be on stage doing what they do." The dancers train relentlessly. They spend four hours in class and another four in rehearsal each day, Botelho says, and their classes teach them a broad spectrum of styles, including classical ballet, capoeira, modern dance ("[Lester] Horton, Martha Graham, [José] Limon techniques," he writes), as well as the company's foundational Afro-Brazilian movement.
Yet the troupe remains entirely Brazilian, with all Brazilian choreographers and dancers. "When we have auditions for dancers I don't need a super technical dancer," Botelho says—those skills can be taught. "What I need is someone who brings the Bahian spirit inside. This part I can't teach anybody." In 25 years, he writes, none of the company's dancers have been from anywhere other than Bahia. Why? "There is only one Bahia in the planet."
Balé Folclórico da Bahia performs at 8 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Publick Playhouse, 5445 Landover Road, Cheverly. Tickets $20. (301) 277-1710.