A pioneer of Afro-Brazilian dance, Marlene Silva speaks of her trajectory of talent, struggle and resistance; will be honored in spectacular spotlighting black artists



Note from BW of Brazil: Have you ever had one of those moments in which you know the work of some important artist but you don’t know that you know the work of this artist? What do I mean? Well, I’ll use music as an example. Before I began to delve into “coisas do Brasil” (Brazilian things) in 1999, such as the country’s music for example, I didn’t think I really knew any Brazilian music. But then as I started to become acquainted with some Brazilian artists, I discovered that I if fact knew some Brazilian music, although I didn’t know I knew it. I can remember my mother having one of those old 45s of the George Benson classic “Give Me the Night”. The song may be one the artist’s biggest hits, I was always intrigued by the b-side of that single, a song called “Dinorah, Dinorah” that was written by famed songwriter Ivan Lins. The Benson version is from 1980 but the original appeared on a 1977 Lins album. I didn’t know it at the time, but Ivan Lins is an award winning Brazilian musician whose songs have appeared on numerous albums of Brazilian artists as well as some American artists such as Benson, Patti Austin, Quincy Jones and Take 6. Wow…trip this. As I’m looking at the Wiki page for Ivan Lins, I just realized that yesterday, June 16th, was his 73rd birthday!

Anyway, I used that long example to lead into a discussion of today’s featured personality, Marlene Silva. Going through the first few paragraphs of the report below and realizing the importance of this woman to the divulging of Afro-Brazilian culture, I wondered, how is it that I didn’t know who she is. But then I came across the section speaking about the choreography in the 1976 film Xica da Silva and I suddenly remembered that memorable dance scene in the film starring  Zezé Motta. I also remembered one of the numerous videos I’d watched on the CULTNE video archive and I suddenly realized that I did in fact know Marlene Silva’s work, I just didn’t know that I knew it.

Artists pay homage to Marlene Silva in YouTube videos uploaded June 16, 2018

As I started doing a little bit more research on Silva, I saw that not only was there a documentary about her, Marlene Silva: Pele Preta, Raça Negra (Marlene Silva: Black Skin, Black Race), but, as fate would have it, yesterday, again June 16th, videos by a number of artists paying homage to Silva were uploaded onto YouTube! As it turns out, Silva’s name has popped up in a number of  articles in my archives as well as the book Sem perder a raiz – Corpo e cabelo como símbolos da identidade negra, by Nilma Lino Gomes. I’m sure as I go through my book collection on black Brazil, I’m sure I’ll find that my eyes have come across her name more times can I can recall. Looking at my past articles, I also see that her name has already appeared on this very blog in a story about the Baobá of Minas Dance Company, Minas being Minas Gerais, the state from which Marlene is from. So, no doubt, I will need to do a follow up story on her. But for now, check out the report below on another Brazilian treasure whose acknowledgement and recognition is long overdue!

Marlene Silva 2018 - ©Pablo Bernardo
Marlene Silva 2018 – ©Pablo Bernardo

A pioneer of Afro-Brazilian dance

Marlene Silva speaks of her trajectory of talent, struggle and resistance

By Gustavo Rocha

“Marlene Silva” are the first words pronounced when answering the phone. She makes an “s” with the sound of “X” while speaking, the fruit of the years she lived in Rio de Janeiro, but warns: “People who don’t know me so well think that I am a carioca (native of Rio), but am from Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte (BH), born in the neighborhood of Concórdia”. Once she learned the report was about her career of more than 40 years dedicated to dance and cultura afro (African culture), she begins a well-humored narrative rooted in her memory, in the shows that assembled on journeys she’s made and much prejudice. “Yes, we are going to talk about the prejudice,” she tells me more than once, during our conversation.

Marlene Silva 2018 - ©Pablo Bernardo

Marlene was the honoree at Mostra Benjamin de Oliveira (see note one) and, just like the palhaço negro (black clown) (the first in Brazil), which gives his name to the programming, she is also important for the Afro-Brazilian culture by its precursor and innovative character. “Marlene has an importance to the city and a national relevance, in so much that she devotes herself to being a multiplier of a form of dance, Afro-Brazilian dance”, punctuates Rui Moreira, dancer, choreographer and one of the curators of the exhibition.

Ensaio novo espetáculo Cia de Dança Será Quê?
Dancer/choreographer Rui Moreira

While still a child, Marlene moved to Rio with her mother, who was working as a hairdresser. At the suggestion of the matriarch, she began to make classical ballet lessons, at school of dance, in the neighborhood of the Catete. “I was the only black student in the class. For six months, the teacher completely ignored me. My mother was asking if there was a problem with me, and the teacher said I had a very upright butt and it doesn’t fit within the tulle. My mother took me out of ballet that instant,” she recalls. (see note two)

Verve. The first unsuccessful experience with dance served only to postpone the relationship of Marlene with the rhythms and choreography, but her artistic verve remained. She learned to play the accordion – a truly complex instrument – in the course of Mário Mascarenhas. She became habilitated, including, as a teacher of music theory. At 21, finally, she watched, for the first time, a presentation of Afro-Brazilian dance, with the balé folclórico (folkloric ballet) of Mercedes Baptista – another figure who is fundamental for the Afro-Brazilian artistic expressions. “I was always very good in history and wanted to study our folklore; I wish everyone had the opportunity to study Brazilian folklore. In Rio de Janeiro, there were orchestras in all public theaters and dance companies. The first time I saw the ballet of Mercedes Baptista, I thought to myself: this is what I want,” she recalls.

In the important and acclaimed film Xica da Silva (1976), by Cacá Diegues, with Zezé Motta, Walmor Chagas and José Wilker in cast, Marlene was invited to work with the rhythms and choreography present in one of the scenes from the movie. She stayed in the city of Diamantina for five months and met Dulce Beltrão, who had a school of dance in Belo Horizonte. There, the young choreographer saw the possibility of returning to the Minas Gerais capital to develop her work. “The school had two quite small rooms and we opened the classes, which soon became crowded. There was nobody doing Afro dance in the city, used to have only capoeira,” recalls Marlene.

From then onwards, Marlene followed her prolific creative saga in the city. In 1980, she opened her own academy, on Carangola street, in the neighborhood of Santo Antônio, in the southern zone of the capital. She did several choreographies and performances, seen by thousands of people. The first of them, “Raízes da Nossa Terra” (Roots of Our Land), debuted, including, in the Francisco Nunes Theater, the same stage where Marlene was honored last Tuesday.

She says it was very exciting to go back to Chico Nunes. “I held myself from crying because, if I cry, I can’t speak,” she said by phone, already with a faltering voice. “When Marlene Silva comes to BH, she creates a collective that puts bailarinos negros (black dancers) on to dance and makes a bridge between the periphery and downtown. As artistic occupation, she leads the dancers of modern dance to the periphery, as also taking afro dance to the downtown, in more recognized and enshrined spaces such as the Palácio das Artes”, punctuates Rui Moreira.

Marlene and her company have succeeded – something difficult until today – to present her work in the Grande Teatro do Palácio das Artes (theater), perhaps the most noble and elitist stage of the city, where you don’t usually see dance spectacles of this source. “I wanted very much to perform in the Palácio das Artes. I made an issue of it!”, she emphasizes.

Mostra Benjamin de Oliveira fb
Performance at the Mostra Benjamin de Oliveira

Event bets on paths to visibility

The 2018 edition of the Mostra Benjamin de Oliveira – which closes today (June 10, 2018) places itself as a place of representation and visibility for artistas negros (black artists) of Belo Horizonte and also in Brazil. “The thought of the exhibition is to bring light to this invisibility of many productions and black artists,” punctuates Rui Moreira, curator of the exhibit beside Mayra Motta.

Mostra Benjamin de Oliveira - collage
Mostra Benjamin de Oliveira values the work of black artists on the stage in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais

With a focus on dance, Benjamin de Oliveira, according to its healer, dialogues with the times lived in the country today, in the hope of a more optimistic future. “This is not an abstract optimism, I have this view by knowing the movement of things in several areas: education, health, culture. I see a empreendedorismo negro (black entrepreneurship) of various initiatives and there is a series of movements which converge, such as the Festival de Arte Negra (FAN or Festival of Black Arts), Polifônica Negra (black polyphonic), Segunda Black, for example,” reflects Moreira.

Commercial for Mostra Benjamin de Oliveira homage to Marlene Silva

And he continues: “We cannot ease from thinking of the historical picture of the country, as inequalities are not only artistic. We have problems too of parity in politics, in education, in positions of leadership. On the other hand, either in culture or in social areas, we have the opportunity to raise the visibility of this African culture, in an attempt to build a more balanced country,” he says.

Source: Oi Futuro, O Tempo


  1. Created in 2013, the Mostra Benjamin de Oliveira was conceived by Cia Burlantins (company) and already reveals its thematic axis: Benjamin de Oliveira, a patron of Burlantins  since the foundation of the group, was born in 1870 and was the first black clown in Brazil, known as “Rei dos Palhaços” (King of the Clowns), and considered the creator of the Brazilian circus-theater. The Mostra, therefore, aims to value Afro-Brazilian culture and black artists through the protagonism of black bodies on the scene. These scenic and political bodies mobilize senses, memories, affections, ancestralities, struggles and resistances. Thus, through a nationally open edict, the Mostra Benjamin de Oliveira selects works in the areas of circus, dance, theater and performance that have a cast consisting predominantly of black actors and actresses. The Mostra is located at Tambor Mineiro (R. Ituiutaba, 339 – Prado), Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais
  2. Once again, as in past articles that discuss ballet, we hear another person/artist recalling being the only black somewhere or facing discrimination because ballet is not “the place” for black girls/women.
About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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