As a 10-year-old boy in Brazil, Jelon Vieira began to study Capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art that is central to his life philosophy. In the mid-1970s, after joining a Brazilian folk dance company, he went on tour to Europe. Soon after, he traveled to New York City, where he founded his own dance company. DanceBrazil has performed worldwide, sharing Brazil’s cultural history and stories of its communities. A Capoeira mestre, Vieira in 2007 founded Capoeira Luanda, which is dedicated to the teaching and practice of Capoeira. He is the recipient of an NEA National Heritage Fellowship, among other awards.
Terry Stoller spoke with Jelon Vieria in December 2017 about his introduction to Capoeira and dance in Brazil, his coming to New York and finding support from Alvin Ailey and Ellen Stewart, the founding of his dance company, his dance works that reflect his social concerns, his teaching projects, including working with underprivileged kids, and his dreams for the future.
Terry Stoller: You came to the U.S. after performing with a Brazilian folk dance company in Europe.
Jelon Vieira: Yes. This is how I started: As a teenager, I lived under a military dictatorship regime in Brazil. When I was 18, I started losing friends who had not been involved in any political movements. They just came under suspicion, and the government took them, and I never saw them again. That got me very angry, and I wanted to leave the country. When I was 16, I joined a folk dance company. That was my school, my door to the arts. I had started with Capoeira when I was 10, but Viva Bahia, the name of the dance company, was the main door into the world. I learned all the history of what I was dancing. They don’t do that anymore, but to dance in that group, you had to learn how to make the costumes, you had to learn the history and the origin of the African gods (Orixás), especially for the Candomblé, the movements of the religion as a folk dance—and you had to know what each dance was all about. You had to take class. Then you auditioned to get into the main company.
What kind of folk dances did they do?
At first they did folklore dance from Bahia, and then they added Capoeira and Candomblé. And I learned all about Candomblé and more about Capoeira and more about all the other dances. Although I joined the dance company, you had to audition to see if you were good enough to go on an international tour. In 1973, the company had a tour to the United States. I auditioned, but I didn’t make it to that tour. I really wanted to come to the United States. I was fascinated by the U.S. because of jazz, the blues. The situation with the Brazilian government started building up inside me, and I wanted to leave the country. Finally, I made it for a tour to Europe, and I left Brazil in March ’74. My intention was to never come back, so I left the company and stayed in Paris. From Paris, I moved to London. I still had the United States in mind, and the place I wanted to go to was New York. I had been studying folk dance and Capoeira, and that was a way to say, All I work with is my art, or I don’t work at all—especially when I came to New York, and I saw how immigrants were living. I said to myself, No, I want something different for me. I started teaching Capoeira and also started teaching Afro-Brazilian dance.
When I came to this country, I came to do a play. I was living in London. The director of Viva Bahia, Emília Biancardi, was a musicologist and also a composer, and she was doing the music for a play that was going to open in New York. The play was Parto. It’s the word for childbirth. It was based on a Portuguese book called The Three Marias. Emília invited me and my Capoeira partner, Loremil Machado. She said, I’m doing this play, and I would love you two to come and do some Capoeira in the play. I was supposed to come here, do the play and go back to London. When I came to New York, I felt like a kid inside a candy store. I said to myself, I’m not leaving this place. I did the play, the play closed, and I stayed and started teaching Capoeira at La MaMa. I also met Tom O’Horgan, and he invited me to do The Leaf People and other projects on Broadway and off-Broadway.
And you continued to teach at La MaMa.
Ellen Stewart took me under her wing. She gave me a place to teach. She said, You must teach this art, Capoeira, for the community. She rented me a space at 47 Great Jones Street. Today you cannot even rent a bed or share for that money in that area. I used to pay $250 a month for the whole floor. I stayed there for a couple of years. She brought me into many projects. Both Ellen Stewart and Alvin Ailey encouraged me. Then I formed a dance company in 1977.
You were also studying when you came here.
Yes. When I got here, I got more and more interested because I had wanted to be a choreographer since I was 12 years old. (I didn’t even know the word choreographer, but later on I knew what that was.) When I was a boy in Brazil, I saw a dance company that up to today was the best dance company I have ever seen in my whole life. It was all women. At that time in Brazil, it was rare to see a man dancing, especially in Bahia. The dance was about the dictatorship that was going on in Brazil. I didn’t understand it completely, but I understood that they tried to say something through movement. My mother later explained to me, You know they were talking about the dictatorship, and since in the dictatorship, they can’t speak, they talked through movement. You had to be an adult to understand that, but I liked the expression. I liked the movements, and that stayed in my mind. I didn’t want to be a dancer myself. I just wanted to form that movement. Later on, I found out that it was called choreography.
Where did you study in New York?
I had met Alvin Ailey in ’72 when Alvin came and taught a workshop in Bahia. I took the workshop, and it was lovely. When I came here, I looked for him. Right away, he took me under his wing. Alvin encouraged me to take dance, and he gave me a scholarship at his school. There I took ballet. I took Martha Graham from Denise Jefferson. I took the Horton technique with Thelma Hill and also many workshops with James Truitte. But Denise Jefferson said, You have such a long torso—Martha Graham school will love you. I auditioned, and I got a scholarship. But I couldn’t keep the scholarship there. It was too demanding. I needed to work to survive. I was by myself. I went to Alvin Ailey and said, I want to keep the scholarship here, but Tom Stevens (the director at the time) is demanding from me certain things that I can’t do. Thank you, but I’m not able to keep the scholarship because I have to work. I have to pay my rent. And Alvin said, Meet me tomorrow morning at the school. And he went to Tom and said, Starting today, he’ll make his own schedule. The school was strict, but Alvin made it possible for me to have my own schedule.
In the meantime, I was starting my dance company. But then I wanted to dance with Alvin. And he told me, I would love to have you dance with me, but I would rather see you do your own work. I was brokenhearted, but I did it. Then he helped me a lot. He gave me a lot of costumes that he didn’t use anymore, so that I could transform them into my own costumes. And he found a place for my residency at the Richard Allen Center for Culture and Art. Alvin was fantastic. In 1980, he told me, If you want to survive in this business, you must start a not-for-profit organization. So I founded the Capoeira Foundation.
When did you start performing with your company?
My first performance was in 1977, at the Clark Center Dance Festival. Another person that really took me under her wing was Louise Roberts. She was the director of the Clark Center.
I started the company as the Capoeiras of Bahia. Alvin came to me in 1981 and said, You need to change the name of your company. Since Capoeira was so foreign for Americans, he suggested, You need a short name that says what you do, easy for America and for the world to pronounce. He was very open for you to choreograph anything you wanted to. He said, Don’t ever let anyone limit you. I’m going to give you a name. Alvin named the company DanceBrazil. He loved Brazil so much. He had wanted to open up a dance school in Brazil to serve underprivileged kids, and the dance school was going to be called DanceBrazil. But the government wanted to open the school in another area, not in the poor area. Alvin decided not to do the project, and he said, You can use the name.
As you told me, you started Capoeira at age 10. You’ve said it’s your life philosophy, your way of life, respect for life, discipline, determination. How does Capoeira do that?
Capoeira is like any other art form. It demands a lot of focus and discipline. And how we interact in the game of Capoeira, like the fighting, requires so much focus. For you to be able to have that kind of focus, you must do it with discipline. And through Capoeira, I learned that when we have discipline, we own ourselves. Owning yourself and being disciplined the right way mean freedom. And through freedom, you understand things better. It gave me the opportunity to see that when you have discipline the word impossible becomes temporary because you’re able to do anything. And that I got through Capoeira. There are people doing Capoeira, and people that are Capoeira. I was born to be a Capoeirista. It is what I am. It’s my base. Capoeira also brings people together, and that’s my first understanding. It’s like any other art; art is about bringing people together. Art for me is about peace, about love, about respect. And I got all that through that art form, through Capoeira. Capoeira is my vehicle for making friends, exchanging ideas and learning from one another. That’s why I say Capoeira is not what I do but what I am.
You’ve said that although you use many dance forms in your company, Capoeira is the base. Is what you’ve just described the reason?
That’s the reason. If I choreograph any work for any company or anyplace else outside my dance company, if I don’t explore from Capoeira, I’m not being myself because it’s so rooted in me; it’s so natural for me, I can’t avoid it. When I move, Capoeira comes naturally. It’s like walking.
What are some of the other dance forms that you use in your dances?
Besides the modern, the contemporary—I don’t like to do ballet myself, but I think dancers must take ballet to understand their body and how to express themselves without thinking about technique. I always encourage my dancers to keep an open mind, to try anything that can help them grow. I expose them to many types of dance. That’s why I always have different guests come in to teach them different techniques.
You’ve also worked with people who were in the Alvin Ailey company.
I used to do a lot of projects with some dancers from the Alvin Ailey company. Through Alvin I met a lot of wonderful people.
It’s interesting that you said Alvin Ailey wanted to build a school to help the disadvantaged in Brazil. Many of your dances reflect a social consciousness.
I’d say ninety-nine percent of my dancers came from very low-income neighborhoods. Because those are the people I want to work with. Those people bring a real feeling for my work, especially because I work a lot with social issues, and they come from the areas that I am exploring. When I am doing a piece, I don’t have to explain it to them because they know where it’s coming from.
You’re using dancers from the area you came from?
Yes, from Salvador. One of my dance pieces that was a really big success was Pivete. That was about the street kids in Brazil. The choreography was inspired by a book that was written in 1937, Capitães da Areia by Jorge Amado. The book was not released until years later. I was inspired to show that in 1993 when I did the piece, nothing had changed. Everything had gotten worse.
At that time, I got a grant for research, and I went to several communities to see the reality of why these kids are on the street. Why they are living without a mother, without a father, without any kind of guidance. Right away, I asked my dancers to do lab, to come with me to do research, to get to know those kids on the street and talk to them, so they would get to the stage of transmitting that in a theatrical way—but not overdramatic—so that the feeling would be real. They would share with the audience that you’re talking about someone that really exists. I told the dancers, I want you to be the voice of those kids. You are speaking for them.
In your productions, the majority of the dancers are men, although there are some women. You said before that when you were a kid, not many guys were studying dance.
As time went on, more and more men were getting into dance. The mentality changed. I was talking about the sixties when women didn’t play soccer and men didn’t dance. Now it’s totally different. There are a lot of wonderful female soccer players. Even Capoeira. When I grew up in Capoeira, no women were doing it. But nowadays, from the late seventies to now, we have some incredible Capoeira females. I had some of them in my company. Dance is a strong part of Bahian culture for both men and women.
I read that Capoeira is now a national sport.
Nothing promotes the language of Portuguese more than Capoeira. Through Capoeira Luanda, I have made incredible contacts in the Capoeira community. I have seen a lot of dance companies, not just here but also in Europe, that are exploring Capoeira through choreography. But if you don’t have the background, if you haven’t studied, it doesn’t look right. My dancers, the males and the females, when they come to work with me, they must take Capoeira classes, and Capoeiristas must take dance classes. I expose my dancers to everything possible.
Some years ago, I believe you moved the company to Brazil.
My company was founded here, but in 1993, I decided to open a branch of DanceBrazil in Bahia. That’s when I started doing projects in Brazil. And the name of one project was the South Learns from the North and the North Learns from the South. I want to serve both countries plus travel the world. I come from a state, Bahia, that has some similarities and shares some history when it comes to African Americans. I want to bring the knowledge of Brazil to this country and the knowledge of this country to Brazil. We are on the same hemisphere, and a lot of people don’t know we have this strong history in common.
Do you want to talk about another one of your dances in terms of your interest in social issues?
We have a place that’s called Sertão. The translation is backlands—it’s like the desert. Trying to find water in this place is like trying to find gold on the streets of New York City. I took a trip to one of those areas, and the situation— how people live—was so bad. And I said, I want to do a piece about that. How can I help those people by getting the word out? I don’t know how much that will help, but people will get to know about them. I spent ten days there, and after I came back from the trip, I was speechless for a couple of days. My friends and my family said, you’re very quiet lately. You’ve not been yourself. I said, I saw things I know exist somewhere, but not in 2013 in Brazil, where you meet kids 14, 15 that never went to school. You see 12-year-old girls who should be playing with dolls and going to school who are taking care of babies, their own babies; kids who get bit by scorpions and are buried right by the side of the road; kids sharing a piece bread among them—it’s really bad.
Making this trip there got me to change the name of the piece. I wanted to call it The Voice of Sertão. Then I changed the name to Fé do Sertão. Fé means hope. When I spoke to people and asked, If this place is so bad, why do you still live here?—some people said, we’ve no choice, and some others said, I have a hope that this place will one day be better. Some of them come from several generations of struggle, hunger, and not knowing what basic needs are. It’s a very small community. They walk miles to get water just to cook.
I wonder how you translated all that into a dance.
I have people coming to see my performance. I don’t want them to be depressed. I want them to leave with good memories that they learned something and were happy to have come. There is drama to it. I want people to be aware and to understand what’s going on. I toured that dance piece in the United States, and even in Brazil, people got surprised. On tour, I always talk about my work before the performance. A lot of people felt it was important to hear me talking before they saw the dance piece. I’m there to promote the beauty of Brazilian culture, but also to talk about situations in Brazil that no one wants to talk about and that are always pushed under the carpet.
Another piece I did was inspired by being in France, in Paris, in a really bad neighborhood. If I closed my ears and didn’t listen to the language, I could have been in the United States or someplace in Brazil. I could have been in any country I’ve been to in South America. I could have been in Mexico. That inspired me to choreograph a dance piece called Gueto. I observed behavior of kids from here in the U.S., from France and Europe, and throughout Brazil. And I spent two weeks in Mexico—Mexico is a very poor country, like Brazil—and saw how the kids age 13, 14 are working for drug cartels and carrying guns. I brought that into my work. Gueto means they are in the worst situation possible. It’s an insult for any community, but Gueto is really talking about the world. It’s globalization and poverty.
Were you in France with your company?
An organization in Paris got a grant, and since they knew I worked with underprivileged kids in Brazil, they wanted me to do the same thing there. I went to a center. I worked with nondancers in Paris, and it was amazing to see how much feeling they brought and how serious they were. They brought their everyday situations, everyday experience into the work.
I thought the social work you do is mostly with Capoeira.
In France, I was teaching a Capoeira workshop, but parallel to it, I had to do a project with the students. So I taught Capoeira, and then I said, Now we’re going to use this art to tell a story.
You founded Capoeira Luanda in 2007. What is your involvement with that organization?
Capoeira Luanda was founded after a long process of research and study under my direction and guidance. It is an organization to practice, teach, and preserve the Afro-Brazilian martial art of Capoeira. Our style of Capoeira is known as Capoeira Regional Contemporânea. It is derived from movements and sequences developed by Mestre Bimba and evolutions from my study over the years. I continue to prepare my students and my son Tiba Vieira to carry on the legacy for many generations to come. Today, Capoeira Luanda has spread internationally, with centers and academies in the U.S., Latin America, Europe, and Asia.
What is the time frame that you work with your dance company?
We usually tour in Brazil in February and March. In 2017, I told the dancers that I was going to take off the rest of the year. First of all, it was the lack of funding. I could perform in some other places in New York, but for the past fifteen years, I’d been doing my season at the Joyce. And I didn’t want to go below that level. I had to return a grant to the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from NYSCA [New York State Council on the Arts] because the grants had significantly dropped, and it was impossible for me to do a production at the Joyce—I was forced to cancel my tour.
I’m working to see if we can get more grants in Brazil because the grants I get here are to serve here, and the grants you get in Brazil are to be used in Brazil. But in both places, grants have gone down. Respect for the arts has died all over the world—even in Germany, and that was one of the best places for supporting the arts.
So you’re not working with your company this year.
In one way we are because when I was traveling in Europe, DanceBrazil members were teaching in public school. I do a lot of school projects here in the city, and a number of the members from my company are living here, and they are full-time teachers in the public schools teaching Capoeira. Two members—one is my son who lives with me, the other one lives in Brooklyn, both of them married and have kids—work in a charter school in Canarsie. They teach Capoeira as part of the curriculum. I have about five members of DanceBrazil in New York and two other members living in Houston and Austin, Texas, teaching Capoeira, and another one teaching in San Francisco.
When you started out was Capoeira being done all over the world as it is now?
No. I was the first one to teach Capoeira in this country, myself and Loremil Machado. I was the first one to teach it in London in 1974. Capoeira didn’t start to spread throughout the world until the late eighties. Now you can find Capoeira in over 150 countries. That’s why I travel so much.
You are a Capoeira mestre. There aren’t many, are there?
Real mestres aren’t too many. What is being a mestre for me? I’ve been doing Capoeira for fifty-four years. I don’t graduate any students of mine as mestres until they’re close to their 40s. Because it’s about maturity. You’ll find a lot of young people with the title mestre because a lot of people buy the title. What I tell my students is when I want to graduate you, I will give you the title because I can see that you are ready—not just physically, but based on the level of maturity in terms of being responsible and being respectful. The word mestre, the process, they have to find inside themselves. It is a journey. I give them the title, but they have to work for the recognition from the community. Capoeira has grown so much, and if we’re not careful, it will be watered down. A lot of serious people like me and some others are preserving the art.
You said Alvin Ailey wanted to open a school in Brazil for underprivileged kids. You did that, didn’t you?
I did, in Bahia. There’s a community center that helps kids through Capoeira in Salvador and one on the island off Salvador. Someone is taking care of that for me. Most of the guys and young ladies that work with me here now come from those projects. They are all doing really well. Capoeira opened the windows of opportunity for them.
When were you able to open those centers?
In 1993, when I brought the company to Brazil. I have many students representing Capoeira and myself throughout Brazil. Many of them concentrate on underprivileged communities.
You were saying that the funding for your dance company took a nose-dive. What about for the centers?
Same thing. We are doing this out of passion. Right now, Brazil lacks security, but I still feel like spending more time to help more kids there. I have land. My dream is to turn the land into a center to give kids an opportunity to study dance, any kind of art, computer, but also to help them with homework. And this area really needs it. I’ve been researching, and I find a lot of parents don’t take their kids to school because they don’t have help; they don’t have support. Also in this center I want to give parents support—parents who never went to school can study, can learn a profession, something besides being a housewife or farmworker. It’s a project that’s going to take a lot of money. I hope that if I can’t fulfill it, someone else will, even if I’m not here anymore. We need to help one another.
To read more about DanceBrazil and to see photos and video clips, go to www.dancebrazil.org.
To read more about Capoeira Luanda, go to www.capoeiraluandanyc.com.
Photo credits—Headshot: Lee Morgan; Capoeira do Amor: Nathaniel Tileston; Ritmos (1): Tom Pich. All photos courtesy of Jelon Vieira.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2018 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council