Cool Brazilian moves on SA stage

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TO SW Brazouka ETCH Johnny van Bergen FANCY FOOTWORK: Dancers, from left, Gilson Damasco, Natasha Terekhina, Josy Borges and Braz Dos Santos with Pamela Stephenson-Connolly, centre.

PRODUCER Pamela Stephenson-Connolly (and yes, she is Billy’s wife) rediscovered her passion for dance when she was invited to participate on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing a few years ago.

“I come from a very academic family where dance would never have been considered,” she says of her background.

But a bout of polio as a child meant she had to do strengthening exercises for her legs – and this is where and when she lost her heart.

“I was expected to have my nose in a book,” she continues. However, when the results were achieved, she turned back to the books fully and let the dance go.

She is now a fully-trained psychologist and married to Billy Connolly, but first achieved a hugely successful international career as a comedy actress and stand-up as well as being a best-selling author of, among others books, Billy, the biography of her husband.

Because of her psychology credentials, she was recently sent to the DRC to interview war survivors. It was so devastating that she sank into depression on her return.

TO SW Braz Cover

That’s when the lure of dancing pulled her back: “I knew I needed something and the Strictly Come Dancing gig seemed it.”

Which it was, and this time around Stephenson-Connolly, who might look the ditzy type with her long blonde tresses, yet is anything but, decided she wouldn’t let go of her passion even after the competition ended, as easily as she did the first time around.

The dance she loved the most was her Brazilian encounter and that’s what she got stuck into. “I was at my wits’ end because of my loss of understanding of humanity,” was her explanation after the war horror stories she had witnessed.

But she rediscovered her delight of dance. This time she would hold on tight.

And much more than that, from this passion emerged a show which she will be bringing to the Joburg Theatre next month.

It started with her learning to dance the lambazouka and many other Brazilian favourites.

“I was enchanted by these communities of inclusive people,” she says. She also fell in love with this sexy dance.

“I discovered that it was cheeky, but nurturing,” she says. It also allowed her to climb out of her own skin and experience life fully again.

She found a whole network of people she could study with, yet none of them had ever been on a grand stage before.

“I was bored with all the other dance shows around and that’s when Brazouka’s story began to emerge.”

The show is, to an extent, personal and authentic because it is the story of Braz Dos Santos, one of Pamela’s early teachers, who was born in a modest area in Bahia, Brazil.

His mother raised 11 children and as a teenager the young boy was sent to join the local fishing fleet to earn money. But he was terrified and that was how his dancing began – also as an escape.

He followed the older men to brothels where the girls would seduce them with dancing through the sensuality of their movement which is really from where the lambada originated.

Braz was later discovered, once he had mastered the dance himself, and with a group – including his brother – they toured Europe for five years before he settled in Paris. There he eventually established lambada communities – first in Holland, then Buenos Aires, Argentina and finally in London, UK, where he’s been based since.

He now performs and teaches a contemporary form of the dance called lambazouk which is where this show slips into the picture.

“I wanted to do something more than a dance show,” says Stephenson-Connolly.

She lost her head and wanted her audiences to do the same.

Her pursuit to find the real passion in dancing led her to Brazil where she also bumped into the samba de gafieira, samba no pe and the forró. In the programme notes she expresses her discoveries of the other “delicious and authentic Brazilian dances such as the samba de gafieira, a cheeky tango-esque romp of a dance with ridiculously exciting lifts and tricks that supposedly evolved after Brazilians saw the Argentine tango abroad”.

“I was extremely taken by the orixa dances – intriguing movements associated with the deities of Candomblé, a religion that arrived in Brazil with the African people whom the Portuguese originally brought as slaves.

“Then there was also the elegant Brazilian bolero dance, the bouncy, authentic, athletic frevo, the cool, sophisticated samba funkeado… I loved them all!”

She knew the right people and the show was starting to form in her mind. “I wanted it to be hip and hot.”

Most of what is out there on international stages is traditional Brazilian dance, what you expect and perhaps recognise. Brazouka needed to be something completely different, and it is.

All the dancers are beautiful with the women seemingly chosen for their long manes as much as their bodies which are an integral part of the dance, while the men are macho and muscular and all of them born to dance. “It had to be cosmopolitan and cool,” she says.

She wanted music people could recognise, that would connect them immediately to the show, so it had to be popular. But what she’s most thrilled about is the history that’s woven throughout the show.

There’s a suitcase dance, for example, that’s very much a historical part of Brazilian dance – but this is a modern take. “I wanted to go that route,” she explains.

She wanted audiences to be informed, but in a way that’s showy rather than too serious.

She turned to director and choreographer, Arlene Phillips, who is a showbiz legend, and convinced her that this was what she needed to do – and they were up and running.

It’s been a long and winding road, but one filled with much joy. With their opening season at the Edinburgh Festival a huge success, it’s all systems go for South Africa.

She’s confident, though. And having experienced the show on a much smaller stage and watched the audience sit throughout with smiles on their faces, “I know the bigger stage at the Joburg Theatre, which will enhance the dancing and heighten the experience, will add to the sass of Brazouka”.

It’s frivolity in the best sense of the word as you thrill at the dancers swirling those hips and bend double while swishing their hair and stretching those lovely long legs anywhere they want to go.

• Brazouka runs at the Joburg Theatre from October 3 to 18.

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