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Viver Brasil is 'thinking really big'

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A dance company with big ambition needs to pace itself or it may pull a hamstring. For Viver Brasil, the warm-up period has been 12 years and counting -- a long time to be stretching at the bar.

So it's understandable that the L.A.-based Afro-Brazilian troupe has been itching to break free of the regional dance label and launch itself on the national scene. With fundraising engines blazing, the group is looking to at least double its budget and broaden its artistic range over the next few years.

But climbing the evolutionary ladder in the dance world can be a difficult maneuver, one that requires flexibility, stamina and the acceptance that you might end up falling flat on your face.

"It's not going to be easy," said Linda Yudin, the company's artistic director. "But I still think that the next few years look promising to us, and we have not let the recession stop us. I tell our board of directors that we're thinking really big right now."

Viver Brasil's leaders know that the company's hyper-specific genre of dance isn't always an easy sell. The group specializes in a hybrid style of movement derived from the Salvador, Bahia, area of Brazil that mixes Candomblé tradition (derived mostly from Yoruba folklore) and modern dance. The narrative numbers are accompanied by high-decibel percussion music that makes for an intense and sometimes contextually demanding evening of entertainment.

Over the years, the company has developed a loyal following in L.A., playing to near-capacity crowds for several consecutive summers at the Ford Amphitheatre. This Friday marks the company's seventh visit to the Ford. Audiences will get a taste of the Viver Brasil to come: technologically savvy, accessible and more high-energy than ever.

The company is working for the first time with video artists to add a high-tech element to its concerts, with colorful digital images evocative of Brazil and projected text to help audiences understand the mythological stories being told. (The approximately 80-minute concert features both new and previously produced work.) Among the company's other recent accomplishments are landing its first foreign engagement (in Guadalajara, Mexico) and a new collaboration with the Hollywood Bowl, where Viver Brasil will perform onstage in September.

But like so many other arts groups, Viver Brasil also has had to scale back significantly in recent years. Its roster at the Ford this week will include seven dancers, down from a high of 22 in 2003. ("It's a financial decision to keep the company more manageable," Yudin said.) Currently, the company produces only one or two full-evening performances a year, with the rest of the season filled with guest appearances and educational programs.

Running Viver Brasil on a budget of less than $200,000 a year is particularly taxing since the company insists on artistic authenticity, importing talent from Bahia and sending its own dancers there for training. During one recent season, a visa mix-up forced the company to launch an emergency 48-hour fundraising drive to expedite the processing of one of its Brazilian teachers.

Adding to the challenges is what the company believes is a reluctance of many smaller L.A. theatrical venues to welcome dance companies. "I want theaters to look at us not as alternative programming but on equal footing with other art forms," Yudin said.

As Viver Brasil struggles to evolve, its dance style is also changing gradually. The group started in 1997 as a strictly folk dance company but has steadily added more mainstream ballet and contemporary choreography to its programs. The company works regularly with choreographer Rosangela Silvestre, whose technique fuses traditional and modern to an even greater degree.

The company's newest numbers are athletic and physically draining pieces thanks to the balletic leaps and jumps the dancers are required to perform. "It's exhausting," said Shelby Williams, who has danced with the company for four years. "But I wouldn't say that I'm tired after performing. Actually, I'm glad because I know I won't have to do any more jumping for the rest of the day."

The decision to include more mainstream dance moves could allow Viver Brasil to appeal to a wider audience. But as it broadens its artistic scope, the company also wants to maintain its roots in Candomblé and Bahian culture, which has given it a distinct identity. Luiz Badaró, the company's co-artistic director and married to Yudin, said that the authenticity of the choreography and music "is still what drives the company."

Badaró was born in Salvador, Bahia, on the northeastern coast of Brazil, and he choreographed the final number of Friday's performance -- a tribute to the Carnaval tradition in Brazil. Most of the company's other members are American born: Yudin is Jewish and from Illinois. Her graduate studies in dance and ethnology at UCLA led her to travel to Brazil during the '80s, and she has since absorbed the culture and learned to speak fluent Portuguese.

Viver Brasil's leaders realize that they will be competing with larger dance companies on the national scene. New York-based Dance Brazil is perhaps the best-known U.S. company that specializes in dance from the Bahia region and has been operating for more than 30 years. The question remains whether there is enough demand from venues around the country for this style of dance.

"We're a small-budget company, and we're working hard to prove that we can handle the demands of growth," Yudin said. "We want to add more dancers onstage and bring in more artists from Bahia. That would be a challenge, but it's the kind of challenge that we welcome."

david.ng@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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