Rio, LES and the green ring in the Olympic flag

A segment of the Rio Olympics opening ceremony, showing indigenous peoples in lushly forested Brazil as the Spanish “discoverers” arrive on their ships. Photo by Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil
A segment of the Rio Olympics opening ceremony, showing indigenous peoples in lushly forested Brazil as the European “discoverers” arrive on their ships. Photo by Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil

BY ELIZABETH RUF-MALDONADO | As a devotee of Brazilian culture for most of my life, a writer on Afro-Latin musical performance and cabaret arts, an educator inspired by Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” a practitioner of the Theater of the Oppressed of Brazilian theater innovator Augusto Boal, and a community gardener concerned about climate change, I anticipated the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro with a sense of poetic justice.

Indeed, it seemed that the Lower East Side community where I came into my own in the 1980s and ’90s had more access to performative Brazilian culture than the Brazil I encountered when I traveled to Rio itself. The Empire Loisaida Samba School built and staged full-blown carnival parades from its Houston St. headquarters. The Friday night parties at CUANDO on Second Ave. and Houston drew crowds of Brazilians from Queens and New Jersey to dance samba de gafieira and share home-cooked traditional foods to the strains of Jorjão’s pagode band. Lezly’s on Broadway and Houston offered classes in samba, capoeira, and Afro-Brazilian orixa dance. CHARAS, a community center carved out of the abandoned old P.S. 64 by Puerto Rican youth — Chino Garcia, Armando Perez and Bimbo Rivas (who coined the name “Loisaida”) — hosted capoeira batizados (baptisms) presided over by international capoeira masters. The Gas Station at Avenue B and E. Second St. housed gritty gatherings where Brazilian rhythms leapt from metallic instruments hammered out at an on-site forge.

In the midst of this hotbed of Brazilian culture emerged Earth Celebrations, a collaborative environmental ritual conceived by Felicia Young to save Loisaida’s community gardens. Biannual seasonal processions mobilized community members dressed in the carnivalesque garb of earth spirits to parade through the LES streets to a live samba beat. As they stopped at each of the 40-some neighborhood gardens, paraders offered a bulb to be planted by a child from that garden. Earth Celebrations’ rituals united the LES’s diverse community gardens, gave them an indelible public face, and helped to secure them under the Parks Department, effectively greening our neighborhood.

As I took in Rio’s opening ceremony, I was transported to my early Loisaida days by a running theme at work in the opening lines of Jobim’s jazz samba “O morro não tem vez”: “The favela doesn’t get any breaks, and yet, it has accomplished so much! So look here, everyone, when they give the favela a chance, the whole city is going to sing!” For “favela,” the low-income hillside neighborhoods of Rio — of which Rocinha is the largest — I easily substituted the struggling Loisaida ’hood of the ’80s and ’90s that bloomed into New York’s Community Garden District.

Brazil has a national history older and at least as culturally rich as that of the U.S. Yet, in the months and weeks leading up to the Olympics, the corporate media of the English-speaking North (including NPR and the BBC) had sought to make a mockery of the choice of Rio, a developing country, as Olympic host. The strain on resources for Brazil’s poor and the projected risk to the health and safety of visiting athletes were endlessly trumpeted, as if the developed world were devoid of environmental hazards, poverty and violence.

A photo of the author in the early 1990s performing samba learned on the Lower East Side.
A photo of the author in the early 1990s performing samba learned on the Lower East Side.

Isn’t the U.S. the greatest consumer, per capita, of the world’s natural resources and a top contributor to global warming? Commentators ignored political corruption in the U.S. and the countries of U.S.-allied hosts of recent Olympics, scoffing at the travails of Brazil’s Workers’ Party and the impeachment of popularly elected President Dilma Rousseff (whose greatest infraction may turn out to have been reallocating funds to pay for badly needed social programs for the poor). The media alternately wrung its hands and gloated over Brazilian social contradictions that the creative team behind the Rio opening ceremony was meeting head on.

The ceremony underway, veteran sambista Paulinho da Viola gently sings Brazil’s national anthem, accompanying himself on guitar in a simple samba rhythm. The kinetic languages of object-theater and puppetry prevail in the choreography of Deborah Colker. A history of Brazil’s people begins in the Amazon rainforest with silken vines woven into towering green-lit thatch by loincloth-wearing dancers drawn from the indigenous population of the Amazon region. Portuguese conquistadors arrive on skeletal ships, and the native peoples encounter them with stern curiosity. Enslaved Africans trudge across the stadium, some with their feet encased in wooden blocks and their shoulders bent under the weight of wooden yokes. Others are tossed by gigantic metal wheels, like caged rodents.

Video projections and 3D mapping fill the stadium floor with jutting and shifting cubes, signaling the urbanization of the Brazilian population. Acrobats scamper across the virtual rooftops to alight among colorful shanties stacked against the precipitous face of a favela. Dancers tumble from one railing to the next, whizzing past each other in a thrilling midair display.

The favela gets its chance, and parkour becomes an emblem for a recurring theme of the ceremony, one shared by CHARAS in its heyday: “Doing more with less.” The dancers toss cubes into precarious formations to an ominous tune I recognize as Rio-born songwriter Chico Buarque’s “Construcão,” a modernist ballad to a fallen worker.

Inside the Empire Loisaida Samba School studios at the squatted CUANDO community center on Second Ave. and E. Houston St., preparing for the Carnival of Loisaida, held Aug. 29, 1993. Photo by Elizabeth-Ruf Maldonado
Inside the Empire Loisaida Samba School studios at the squatted CUANDO community center on Second Ave. and E. Houston St., preparing for the Carnival of Loisaida, held Aug. 29, 1993. Photo by Elizabeth-Ruf Maldonado

More favela-fusion dancers in white orixa costumes remind the world that the legacy of African nature worship defines popular culture across the hemisphere. Moreover, iconic U.S. breakdance and hip-hop culture owe a debt to Brazilian émigrés, like Jelon Vieira and Loremil Machado who popularized the dances of candomble, as well as the acrobatic danced martial art of capoeira, in New York City in the mid-1970s. The intimate one-on-one of the capoeira roda, or sparring circle, doesn’t translate to a stadium-sized event. As a solitary capoeirista performs a selection of capoeira’s iconic floreios (acrobatic flourishes), a dreamy filmic depiction of a two capoeiristas intertwined in a roda spreads across the entire stadium floor.

Next, Zeca Pagodino’s samba pagode finds the humor in its own misfortunes, catching up our hips and feet with ambling sad-sack subtlety to the jingling sweetness of the cavaquinho. A battalion of gold- and silver-clad “haves” faces off against a red sea of “have-not” masses as event co-creator filmmaker Daniela Thomas (in a prerecorded insert) affirms the ethical imperative of depicting Brazil’s social contradictions on the Olympics’ international stage.

According to one listing, the ceremony was broadcast with a delay, so that NBC could “curate” the coverage. Did that mean that NBC was protecting hapless descendants of Puritans in the north from prime-time displays of bare skin that accompany the carnival dancing for which Rio is known? In any case, the closest thing to a celebration of the body for its own sake is the tearful final catwalk appearance of Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen, swathed (save for some strategic slashes) from neck to toe in a silver-sequined sheath dress.

The ceremony nowhere duplicates the hedonism of Rio’s pre-Lenten carnival. Rather, the performance transitions toward the parade of nations, with a Seuss-ian crowd in jellybean-tinted coveralls and afro hairdos joyously improvising as the perimeter of the stadium erupts in sprays of fireworks, evoking the rays of the sun and the danger of global warming.

A lone black child, dressed in futuristic optic white and silver-toned urban garb, traverses a wasteland. A lurid light show traces global warming from the distant past into the not-so-distant future, warning of imminent flooding of the world as we know it. But hope lives —a time-lapse film of the twisting forms of plants taking root captures the insolence of “A flor e a náusea” (“The Flower and the Nausea”), a poem by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, narrated in English by Judy Dench. In Rio (and LES):

… A flower, though faded

Evades the police, breaks the asphalt …

It is ugly. But it is truly a flower …

[It pierced the asphalt, the boredom, the disgust and the hate]

The boy of the future holds a green seedling, which he and 200 others like him carry at the head of every contingent in the parade of nations, each paired with flower-bedecked youths riding oversized tricycles. In the same way that gardeners visited by the Earth Celebrations revelers in Loisaida received a bulb, each Olympic athlete receives a seed. These seeds will be planted to form the Olympic Floresta dos Atletas.

Hurrah for an earnestly popular Olympic opening ceremony that furthers (on the other side of the equator) Earth Celebrations’ green mission and the Loisaida United Neighborhood Gardens (LUNGS) seasonal festivals that now pick up the torch!