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Performing Lives, Dancing Experiences: Companhia Urbana de Dança’s Marvelous Symbiosis

Companhia Urbana de Dança, founder and choreographer Sonia Destri Lie insists, just sort of happened. At the time of its formation, she had just moved back to Brazil from Germany, where she had studied contemporary dance and delved into the world of hip hop. Back in Rio de Janeiro, she began working on a dance […]

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Tiago Sousa, Companhia Urbana de Dança. Photo: Renato Mangolin

Companhia Urbana de Dança, founder and choreographer Sonia Destri Lie insists, just sort of happened. At the time of its formation, she had just moved back to Brazil from Germany, where she had studied contemporary dance and delved into the world of hip hop. Back in Rio de Janeiro, she began working on a dance project for a fashion show, auditioning B-boys and hip hop dancers. Meeting those dancers, she explained, “was the turning point. I saw so many good dancers, and they had no idea how good they were. In Rio, there was no opportunity, no jobs, so I decided to use my contacts in Europe to try to do something.” She started finding some dancers to form a company — or, as she likes to say, they found her. Companhia Urbana de Dança fully came into existence when a festival director took notice of her work and invited her to the Biennale de Lyon, an international dance festival in France. Along with dancer Tiago Sousa, whom she had met at the fashion show, Destri Lie pulled together a group to perform in Lyon in 2006. The company has changed members extensively throughout its existence, growing through three iterations into the critically-acclaimed group it is today.

Destri Lie has two conditions for her dancers: they must be good, respectful people, and their desire to dance must come above all else. For her, big egos have no place in the company, and a good personality is more important than flawless technique. Tiago explained in an interview: “Our desire to dance is greater than any necessity. We are all intelligent and talented. We could be doing anything else, but we chose dance, and we know that it takes a lot of love and dedication.” Indeed, many of the dancers have gone to great lengths to keep dancing. Rafael “Rafa” explained that after his mother told him he couldn’t keep dancing, he sneaked out of the house to go to rehearsal. In the beginning, the only rehearsal slot Destri Lie could get was from 11 pm to 3 am in a studio that was a substantial commute away from many of the dancers’ homes. Nevertheless, the dancers’ passion and dedication have propelled the group to international recognition.

Part of the genius of Companhia Urbana de Dança is the marvelous symbiosis it exhibits, both in terms of the styles of dance performed, and the company itself. Destri Lie and her dancers each contribute something to the company, creating a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. As she explained in an interview with Time Out NY:

Tiago Sousa said one day during this fashion show rehearsal: “Sonia, you are the only one that can understand our language, and you are the only one that can take us to a different level. If not, we are gonna be the black kids that dance from the favelas. And we are never gonna get respect! We need you, and I think you need us because we will be the reason for you to do something fresh and new. Maybe you will reinvent yourself and do not need to go to Europe again.” […] I already had two dance companies before. It was hard to get support, money and sponsors, and I did not want to go through this all over again. But I said, “Yes! Let’s try.” And here I am.

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André Feijão, Companhia Urbana de Dança. Photo: Anderson Café

But Destri Lie is aware that the fusion of artists and dance styles that exists in Companhia can be risky, especially given the juxtaposition of her background with those of the dancers. A recent New York Times review addressed this delicate balance:

Companhia Urbana de Dança sounds like a bad idea. It is a Brazilian dance troupe composed of young people, mostly men of African descent, mostly from the favelas, or slums, of Rio. But it is led and choreographed by Sonia Destri Lie, a white woman not from the favelas. She is trained in ballet and American and European contemporary dance, yet the works are based in hip-hop, somehow refined. Exploitation, condescension: Pitfalls abound. And yet […] Companhia Urbana de Dança is so wonderful that it seems miraculous.

Indeed, pitfalls abound. Companhia Urbana de Dança dances in a delicate space in which issues such as race, poverty, violence, and gender are, through the act of performance, at risk of alternately being exploited or erased. Similarly, there is the balance in their performance between dance and narrative, with the chance that the background stories overpower the dancing.

Indeed, few descriptions of the company fail to mention the dancers’ origins in the favelas and suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. Favela is usually translated as “slum,” and denotes an informal urban settlement in Brazil, often associated with poverty, crime, and drug trafficking. Since 2008, the government has worked to decrease the rule of drug lords in favelas through the implementation of UPPs (Police Pacification Units). Recently, the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics have increased international scrutiny over crime and violence in these neighborhoods. In discussing some of the challenges of building a professional dance company through the years, Destri Lie does not deny that the dancers’ living situations often made things difficult — some of her dancers were consistently late, or couldn’t leave their neighborhoods for rehearsal because of drug-related violence, or even collapsed during practice because they didn’t have enough money for food. Tiago, when describing how he started dancing, explained, “I realized that, in my neighborhood, the guys who got girlfriends either danced or carried a gun… I chose to dance.”

But while crime, drugs, and violence, remain issues in Brazil’s favelas, the focus of popular narratives on these negative characteristics of the “morros” (“hills,” as they are often called), allows only for a narrow and stigmatizing perspective on them and the people who live there (indeed, discrimination and prejudice towards residents of these neighborhoods often makes it more difficult for them to find employment). In contrast to many prevailing conceptions, visual and performing arts have permeated some of these neighborhoods—for example, the colors of the neighborhood of Santa Marta, or faces and eyes painted on the houses in the Morro da Providência neighborhood. Favelas are where funk carioca music originated, as well as dances such as passinho, which has gained international recognition. In Morro dos Prazeres, a favela near the center of Rio de Janeiro, MTV built a high-quality soccer field to film a Brazilian TV show. There are schools, hospitals, and libraries in the neighborhoods. Cidade de Deus (inspiration for the Academy Award-nominated film of the same name) even has its own form of currency.

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Morro dos Prazeres, Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Lydia Brosnahan

Companhia Urbana de Dança cannot erase the influence of its multifaceted background stories. Yet Destri Lie is cautious of creating performances that focus solely on the favela origins of the dancers. As she explained to TimeOut NY, while discussing the second group of dancers she worked with in the company (2006–2008):

I knew that to have a dance company with black dancers that came from the favelas and so on, I should be careful. Not with them, but with others: the media, the press release and so on. I did not want to use them. For me, it was just the place they came from. I wanted respect because they were a good dancers, I wanted respect because the work was good, I wanted respect because we were working hard… I did not want to have FAVELA in bold letters, not the way people use that in their Playbill. First, I wanted to be a dance company and not a social project.

The recent New York Times review concurs: “Ms. Destri Lie, with her artistry, never stresses the obstacles that her dancers have to overcome. But,” the article continues, “that, too, is under the surface.” Companhia Urbana de Dança’s works allow the dancers space to speak for themselves; to masterfully, but subtly, tell their own stories through their dance. While the pieces are choreographed by Destri Lie, each dance is also shaped by the dancers themselves — as she says, “The choreography isn’t mine, I just design it… I take their movement and make it my own, and vice versa.” And as her website describes, “Their social and cultural backgrounds fuel their inspiration and creativity, allowing for intense, genuine, and beautifully expressive movement.”

As the dancers influence the dance, so does the dance influence the dancers. Working with the Companhia dancers helped Destri Lie to revitalize and rethink her work, and through working with a renowned dance company, the dancers gained the respect not only of their families and their peers, but also of the international dance community. On the company website, dancer Feijão explains: “Dancing gave me self-respect, changed everyone’s opinion of me…. It brought up my self-esteem. At rehearsal, I found myself, I knew where to go, when I started to dance… Dance gave me the chance to get to know the world, it gave me direction.” Destri Lie, as well, described how she hopes the company can influence audiences’ perceptions, not only of dance, but of the dancers themselves: “I want them to show the world that being black, poor, Brazilian — third world — and having talent, that they could change the game through dance. And to show them as protagonists of their own transformation.”

Companhia Urbana de Dança exemplifies the innovative potential of 21st-century performance. It seamlessly fuses hip hop and contemporary dance, while simultaneously creating thought-provoking dissonance. It builds global performance with local motivations, encouraging dialogue about both dance and global issues. It is inclusive and inspirational without being exploitative — each piece recognizes the undeniable influence of each company member’s individual story while highlighting, on stage, the power of dance itself.

Companhia Urbana de Dança will perform Na Pista and ID:ENTIDADES Thursday–Saturday, March 27–29, 2014, at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.