The class started quietly enough with a little potted history of capoeira. a dance which doubles as martial art. The dividing line between play and fight is a fine one, says Booth. Most ofthe time it is peaceful, but capoerista players have been known to carry razor blades between their toes.
Once played, capoeira is never forgotten. I was new to the game and had no idea what I was letting myself in for. Booth went on with his story.
Capoeira is at least four hundred years old. Early forms were created in Angola but it was the slave trade to Brazil which carried it to South America and the slaves who
developed it as a way of retaining their dignity and collective pride. Once a technique which gave expression to manacled limbs, it now lends style, grace and courage to the shanty towns of black South America, a defence system against an unstable economy and neglect.
Though it has been around for many years. capoeira has been rediscovered in recent years and taken up by urban North America where it evolved into break-dancing. giving street dance the kind of fame it had not enjoyed since the inventors of tap sparred in Harlem during the Depression. But despite this further emigration the heart of capoeira still belongs to the black communities of Brazil just as tap belonged to black America before Astaire highjacked it and made it his own.
Among the facts Booth sprinkles magic Hispanic words, familiar to him, but strange to most. Like any highly-developed dance technique or martial art, capoeira has a terminology all its own. Each dance is called a game which the masters of capoeira, the capoeiristas, play in a circle 'to music chieﬂy by the one-stringed beribau. You must be a baptised capoerista to play in the circle.
And I thought I had come to a contemporary dance class. Flicking his legs like a switchblade, Booth proclaims the beauty of this beast to be its containment within a strict technique, but that within that technique there are wild possibilities, maverick stunts and' cunning individualism. It is the best of languages which allows new vocabulary to be invented and incorporated. The pinnacle of the capoerista is to invent a new move.
All I could do was put my best foot forward. The other one would have to catch up as best it could. New Moves may be the title of Third Eye Centre‘s season of new dance of which Booth is just one component. but I felt I would be lucky to keep moving.
Seconds after the historical pep talk, we were suddenly bent into a position which looked like an extended sumo wrestling tactic. But it was fast. It seems that capoeiristas are crouching, cartwheeling. catapulting most of the time. There
is little time for standing still. A swanking six year old from a capoerista school on the concrete might compete but not I. My wings had no more flap than an ostrich and
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Work by Laurie Booth forms part ofthe current New Moves Dance season. Alice Bain joined a Booth masterclass -- and got rather more than she
Atempting arm illustrates the playful precision of Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus. See New Moves on Dance Page for details.
my thighs only just regained consciousness when Booth finished up with the exercises and moved on. With muscles gasping and lungs much further on than that. we were ready to eyeball a partner and begin the game. 'You must learn to read your opponent's mind' says Booth as I struggle to retain some kind of dignity ofbody. The man beside me (one of Booth‘s troupe) has a snake tattoo chiselled into his head. Now there‘s something to make your opponent think.
Attempting strategy but mostly just managing to breathe I stalked around my partner. Luckily he was not playing mean and we picked up the rhythym ofthe ginga (the sideways step which underlies the whole technique ofcapoeira — the equivalent to the pas de bourrez in ballet). After more cartwheel practice (during which we still had to eyeball our partners. not an easy order) the circle was made up and the beribaus tickled like oriental \xnccs.
The snake was out for a fight. Booth. with his long. pointed sideburns and elegantly shaved head was parading his prowess like a jungle cat. The rest of us mere men and women were proudly proving that instinct for movement may lie deep below Western skins but is willing to surface under the force of an art like capoeira.
The workshop had now progressed for two and a half hours. Some games of capoeira last for twelve hours. It is then. when the game becomes a trance, that voodoo enters the ring. We stop, reluctantly, long before there is any danger of trances and as we move to the
dressing rooms, there is something of the sassy swank which characterises the off-duty capoeirista. Another class next week is greeted with enthusiasm. But what about the tenderised thighs and compacted wrists? This capoeira pulverises many a contemporary dance class complaint into puny silence.
Booth himself has strong ideas about contemporary dance. It was on a trip to San Franciso to prepare for working among Eritrean refugees camps that he was drawn to learning capoeira. He had planned to spend that time working with dancer Anna Halpern but was ‘pissed off’ in only three days. Joining animal instinct with human intelligence, capoeira had the openness and variety he was looking for.
In Britain he sees much contemporary dance fossilising under the weight ofits own misunderstandings. ‘There’s a lot of very good mediocre work in this country. Dance is very underdeveloped here — a lot of people make work which feeds back into the mainstream, but call it new dance.‘ Artistically he sees things in bad shape, but administrations are often to blame too. ‘Foreign companies don‘t want to come here any more. They don‘t get paid enough, have to deal with administrators who don‘t know their job (not at Third Eye, he hastens to add) and have to deal with badly informed audiences.‘
But like the side - stepping ginga of capoeira, Booth is used to manoeuvring deftly through these kinds of obstacles while preserving the beliefthat anything is possible. Starting his professional life as an actor, he took up dance eight years ago. His work and life are filled with the unlikely. Like being a direct descendant of John Wilkes Booth, the American actor who shot Abraham Lincoln in 1864. ‘Quite true. The physical appearance has been carried down’ he says and refers to his ‘maniacal, melancholic’ features.
He has become a baptised capoeirista. He keeps fit by climbing on the ladders on Brighton pier which leave him dangling above the sea. He has just made a new piece to open Third Eye Centre‘s ‘New Moves‘ season of dance and has collaborated with Peter Greenaway and artist Tom Phillips on a 34 part series for Channel Four for which he was coated in clay. He also does a passable imitation of a ballerina.
‘I’m interested in what can‘t happen and then making it look like it can’.
F all details of those performing in Third Eye Centre’s New Moves season can be found on the Dance Page.
6 The List 27 January - 9 February