Stage Door Review

Rio de Janeiro, BRA: Ginga Tropical

Sunday, February 16, 2020


directed by Rose Oliveira

Ginga Tropical, Teatro de Leblon, Rio de Janeiro, BRA

February 11, 2017-open ended run

“When she walks, she’s like a samba

That swings so cool and sways so gentle”

(from “The Girl from Ipanema”, 1962)

Many people know that certain countries are identified with a specific kind of dance – Austria with the waltz, Argentina with the tango. Fewer people know how closely Brazil is identified with the samba. At the famous Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro various samba “schools” compete for prize money and sponsorships during the parade. The judging is held in a permanent open structure called the Sambadrome and winning First Prize has a huge effect not just on the future of the samba schools that grow up in Rio’s favelas but on those who are chosen as the schools’ Samba Queens.

Therefore, if visiting Rio outside of Carnaval time and if your Portuguese is not quite up to following a play in that language, an evening of samba performance is highly recommended. One of the best of these samba shows is Ginga Tropical (pronounced JEEN-ga tro-pee-COW”) that means roughly “tropical swagger”, deriving from the word “ginga” which is the name for the basic rocking ready-to-fight stance in the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira. The advantage of Ginga Tropical is that it does not merely focus on the samba alone but instead portrays all the different forms of dance in Brazil that find their way into the samba.

The show is held in the Teatro de Leblon that seats only about 400 and every ticket comes with a free caipirinha, Brazil’s national drink. The show begins in such a low-key way that some may mistake its lack of pretension for amateurishness. After multiple repetitions of videos explaining how to make caipirinhas and verbal prohibitions warning against video or sound recording, a performer emerges in front of the closed curtains to teach the audience how to do the samba. While this this seemingly unnecessary section is primarily meant as an audience warm-up, it does have the useful function of giving the audience clues of what to look for in the dances that follow.

Strangely, one might think for a dance lesson, the performer begins with head movements, then shifts to movements of the shoulders, hips, knees and finally the feet. He demonstrates both the eight-step samba and the more familiar three-step samba. He then shows the three-step samba in double time and then in triple time which those who have seen Carnaval on film will recognize as the main form used in samba competitions where the feet move so quickly they can’t be followed.

Once the lesson is over the curtains part to reveal a recreation of a scene from a 1940s-era movie starring Carmen Miranda (1909-1955), complete with fruit basket headdress, who for so long was the only image of Brazilian dance and song familiar to non-Brazilians. What is most surprising about this scene is that the performers do not stage it as a send-up of Miranda but do it completely straight to emphasize the talent that she had and why – for reasons both good on her part, bad on the part on non-Brazilians – she became a stereotype of a Brazilian performer.

This scene in immediately followed by an eye-popping depiction of people in the midst of celebrating Carnaval with woman in high heels, headdresses and feathers and seemingly little else downstage. If we look a bit closer we see that they are leading a group of performers in a wide variety of costumes – men dressed in the plumage of two indigenous leaders, a woman in Portuguese colonial dress, a gaucho, a capoerista, a guerrilla with crossed munition bands, a colourful condomblé deity an so on. Since the show has no narration, we infer from the juxtaposition of this scene with the previous that Carmen Miranda may once have represented non-Brazilians’ full knowledge of Brazilian dance, but that this show intends to put on display the whole range of Brazilian dance that lies behind (literally as Rose Oliveira has staged it) the sambas one sees at Carnaval.

Specifically, there are 14 different characters in the opening Carnaval, one of each of the 14 types of dance from various areas of Brazil that the show will present. The first of these pays tribute to the indigenous peoples of Brazil by recreating a scene from the Festival de Parintins, an annual festival in the state of Amazonas celebrating native culture. The dance chosen depicts the dispute between two oxen, the Garantido and the Caprichoso, a dispute involving strength and skill which will characterize the dances of the entire show.

Despite this first example of Brazilian dance, the show in its tour of Brazil does not follow any particular pattern geographically or chronologically. Instead, Rose Oliveira has arranged the dances according to how they contrast with or complement each other – a solo dance will be followed by a group dance, an all-male dance will be followed by an all-female dance. Twice there is no dance at all – once a member of the band sings a solo gaucho song, another time three members of the percussion section of the band demonstrate their facility on three types of drum.

While almost all the scenes are accompanied by the full nine member band and one or both of its two singers Lizza Dias and Dinho Silva, one scene uses pre-recorded music. This is “The Girl from Ipanema” (1964) by Carlos Jobim sung in Portuguese by João and Astrud Gilberto, the first time a Brazilian song became a worldwide hit. The cast sets aside dancing for a while and simply recreates a typical scene of 1960s beach life on Ipanema, the beach just southwest of Copacabana, in Rio and included a boy hawking “agua” from a cooler. Once the girl has entered through the central aisle of the audience to the stage, the cast celebrates her with a bossa nova.

Rose Oliveira has so well organized the series of scenes and Jeane Pernambuco and Paulo Cristo have so well choreographed them, that almost all of them are successful in their own way. Nevertheless, for most people two particular scenes will remain the most memorable. The first is the intricately choreographed demonstration of the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira. Capoeira was a martial art that slaves imported from Angola brought to Brazil, specifically to the state of Bahia. Because of the slave-owners’ ban on fighting, capoeira developed into a sport where the winner would be chosen by the number of near hits, rather than actual hits, that he scored against an opponent. 

While some forms of capoeira involve fighting with short, thick wooden stick (as shown), the most traditional form involves aerial kicks with the condition that one hand remain on the ground. This results in an incredible display of body control through its major body twists and helicopter-like leg rotations. Two caporeistas doing a routine in synch looks more like modern dance than a martial art. Each of the four male caporeistas is given the chance to show off his particular skill, often breaking the hand-on-ground rule and doing a completely acrobatic flip or an amazing horizontal aerial cartwheel known as aú giro sem mâo. The scene literally made one’s jaw drop in amazement.

A completely contrasting type of dance also left a lasting impression. This the all all-female dance called carimbó characteristic of the state of Pará. This dance, also imported from Africa, involves women wearing colourful, floral-patterned round floor-length dresses. Careful footwork causes the women to spin in place not unlike Turkish dervishes and their dresses to rise. By using their hands the performers cause the dresses to create gorgeous undulations.

While both capoeira competitions (called samba de roda) and carimbó are performed to samba music, what will surprise many is the inclusion of several traditions that they might never have associated with Brazil. The longest single scene in the show involves the enacting of a wedding dance where the groom is reluctant to go through with the wedding and the action is interrupted by a clown. The dance the guests perform is the quadrilha junina associated with Recife, a dance, that as the name suggests, is the lively Brazilian version of the European quadrille which gave rise to the reel in Scotland and the square dance in the US.

More surprising are the inclusion of two gaucho dances. People associate gauchos with Argentina and Uruguay but forget that Brazil has grasslands too. From the Mato Grosso of midwestern Brazil comes the dança da catira for cowboys and peasants with the performers so dressed, thus causing the audience to stretch their visual image of Brazilian dancing. Brazil’s southernmost province Rio Grande do Sul, is pampas land and its inhabitants are even called “gauchos”.

From this part of Brazil comes a dance on the level of difficulty as the capoeira sequence and worthy of inclusion in a Cirque du Soleil show. The female performer enters dressed as a stereotypical cowgirl carrying two single-stone boleadoras. Also called bolas this is an ancient weapon that gauchos adopted from the indigenous people in which a stone or later a wooden ball was encased in the end of a braided thong. Single-stone boleadoras are called perdidas. With these the performer creates a rhythm by twirling them in arcs so that the stones hit the floor in sequence. To this she adds stamping and tapping her feet flamenco-style thus unifying movement and self-accompaniment. (This idea has been traced back to the Argentine dancer Santiago Ayala in the 1950s.) The routine moves beyond dance into circus when the performer whirls the perdidas in the air so that their arcs are immeshed without ever becoming entangled. The climax of the act comes when the performer manages to keep the perdidas in motion even when holding the ends of the two thongs in her teeth!

Even more unusual than the inclusion of gaucho dances is the incorporation of political and religious dance into the show. I can’t think of too many countries that would allow a show to celebrate the art of guerrillas known for their fight against the central government, but Ginga Tropical includes the dance known as the xaxado sertão. This is a dance done by the guerrilhas nordestinos known as cangaceiros, depicting them on stage in sombreros and crossed bandoliers, to commemorate a victory in battle. The cangaceiros practiced a form of social banditry against the government of Brazil in the late 19th and early 20th centuries seeking money, food and revenge.

The most mysterious dance sequence of the evening involves a performance of condomblé ritual. Condomblé, centred in the state of Bahia, is a perfect example of religious syncretism. Just as the slaves imported to Brazil brought capoeira with them, they also brought the Orisha religion. The Portuguese forbade the slaves to practice their religion even as they forced them to convert to Catholicism and build Catholic churches. As the slaves learned about the main figures in Christianity and about the saints, they saw parallels between Orisha and Christianity. A point was reached where slaves could worship in a Catholic church and view Christian figures basically as avatars of their own religious figures.

In the show we see three characters clad all in white, as is the practice for practitioners of condomblé, one bent over with a face veil of beads as its leader. Six performers each richly dressed in a different bright colour and holding particular attributes like a bow or a mirror, appear. Since Ginga Tropical has no narration to link its dance sequences, those who know nothing of condomblé will have no clue as to what is occurring. Those, however, who have been to Bahia and especially Salvador, its capital, will realize that these colourful figures are gods of the Orisha religion. Each god does a dance that communicates its special power and finally the white-clad performers do a dance of worship.

After showing us forerunners of the samba like the maxixe and later developments of the samba like the lambada, the show ends as it began with a recreation of Carnaval in Rio. There is a the queen of the school holding the school’s flag and her guardian, both looking like the queen and king in chess only in dazzlingly bejewelled costumes. The Carnaval parade extends into the audience and, inevitably, audience members are drawn into the celebrations on stage. This final event is the culmination of breaking the us-them divide between performers and audience and makes Ginga Tropical not merely a celebration of Brazilian dance but of common humanity in general. The audience leaves in a state of exhilaration imbued mostly by simply witnessing the seemingly indefatigable energy of the performers. Ginga Tropical proves to be an excellent way to understand the enormous vitality and variety of Brazil and its people.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Carnaval scene; Samba de Gafieira; Dança da Catira; Capoeira; Boleadores; Condomblé. © Ginga Tropical.

For tickets, visit