Editor’s Note: This is a reprise of a 2011 feature with Samba Fogo, one of the most popular local performing arts groups to take the Round Stage. This feature has been updated with new information.
Every Utah Arts Festival stage venue manages to pack in crowds and one of the most successful local groups at filling the space in and around The Round to the brim just outside the City Library building on Library Square is Samba Fogo. Like clockwork, hundreds of Utah Arts Festival visitors will populate the outdoor venue well before Samba Fogo’s daily 10 p.m. performance, anxiously awaiting the 28-member dance and musical troupe which certainly won’t disappoint in electrifying a crowd eager to celebrate.
The good news is the popular group (which performed last night to a packed audience that overflowed the small amphitheater in The Round) will perform tonight and Sunday.
Even latecomers won’t mind standing on the edge of the reflecting pool adjacent to the venue, guaranteeing a good spot to see a Brazilian and Afro-Brazilian samba performance complete with festive costumes, infectious pulsing drums, earthy vocals, and a thrilling company of dancers and capoeira (Brazilian martial and tumbling artists). Spectators will hear the drums reverberate off the library walls. And, the biggest crowd pleaser – the swirling fire baton choreography.
However, Samba Fogo is more than a dazzling dance show heavily inflected with the musical and dance motifs common to the Brazilian and Afro-Brazilian musical traditions. More broadly, it is a surprisingly rich multicultural affair members are not only from Brazil but from many different backgrounds.
Most of the musicians and dancers were born and raised in Utah but they benefit from a truly cosmopolitan osmosis of cultural experience and travel. For example, there has been a Japanese member of the troupe from New Zealand while another, from Canada, has traveled extensively to Africa.
As Lorin Hansen, a Utah native who directs Samba Fogo, explains, ‘We draw from so many elements – not just from Brazil but also everywhere from the Polynesian islands to America – and we want to share our passion for dance and music.’
There are significant crowd-pleasing enhancements to this year’s show, which features dancers, drummers, and capoeira artists. Among them are new choreography and costumes as well as new lead vocalist Carla Jaynes.
Many of the highlights also are being adapted from a full-length concert theater performance Samba Fogo produced in the Jeanne Wagner Theatre of the downtown Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.
The show is a riveting tour of the samba tradition around Brazil starting with the earthy roots of Afro-Brazilian samba in Salvador Bahia and making its way to the exhilarating carnival scene of Rio, complete with feathers, glamour, and glitter.
Samba Fogo also has secured the approval of fire officials to use the more aesthetically pleasing white gas (also known as Coleman fuel), which is easy to ignite, burns brightly, evaporates cleanly, and does not leave smoke or residues on wicks and bodies. Previously, the troupe relied on kerosene but members were concerned about their safety because the fuel leaves oily residues, which can make it precariously slippery for barefoot performers dancing on linoleum mats to cushion against the hard outdoor surface.
And, white gas enhances the high energy element of fire which meshes well into the intoxicating, joyous Brazilian samba beats and the flashy capoeira displays creating a cultural experience just as enthusiastically endorsed by members of Utah’s Brazilian community as it is by the diverse crowds who visit the arts festival.
‘In my own experience, I started as a fire dancer, then took up modern dancing, and then fell into Brazilian dancing and ever since we’ve been looking for ways to bring it all together,’ Hansen explains.
Samba Fogo comprises a family of dance groups and entertainers who not only enjoy the thrill of large-scale shows but also the opportunity of running a full-fledged escola de samba (samba school) in Salt Lake City. Two decades ago, Jon Scoville at the University of Utah started the program, which is now run by Hansen, and Mason Aeschbacher, a jazz percussionist. Both are full-time evangelists for Brazilian drumming and dance across the metropolitan area, and their work has been richly rewarded in terms of visibility.
Since its last appearance at the festival in 2011, Samba Fogo continues to grow significantly. Hansen says the group always is searching for drummers and a weekly 90-minute Afro Brazilian dance class is held every Thursday at the group’s headquarters located at 663 West 100 South, which is part of the Utah Arts Alliance campus.
The class, which begins at 6:30 p.m, features live accompaniment by Samba Fogo drummers and the cost is $12 for drop-ins or $100 for a ten-class card.’And we do a little beginner class for an extra $3 starting at six p.m.,’ Hansen adds, ‘for those who are new to Brazilian dance and may be a bit shy about trying it out.’
‘Interest in our dance classes really spikes after festival appearances,’ Hansen says. ‘In fact, at times, we doubled the size of our weekly classes.’ Samba Fogo is hoping to recruit more drummers and percussionists, which are essential to its more elaborate production numbers.
Styles and elements include Caixa, Chocalho, Repinique, Surdo, and Tamborim. The companion troupe Samba Gringa became the official band of the Real Salt Lake major league soccer team in 2005. Samba Fogo has performed at Salt Lake First Night, World Cup Luge Championships, World Cup Speedskating Championships, and an even longer list of venues.
The nightly performances at the festival percolate with tremendous agility and showmanship and, as the 50-minute show progresses, the dancers feed on the crowd’s equally ecstatic vibe. The end is a full-fledged carnival scene so natural in character that it’s easy to see why this troupe performs regularly in The Round during the festival. Hansen says many months of rehearsals go into each show.
As for the dazzling display of fire choreography, Hansen is matter of fact about it. “The key is to be calm and focused during a high-pressure situation,” she explains. “And, we take smart proactive steps like wetting our hair.”
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