Companhia Urbana de Dança's street moves rise up out of Brazilian favelas

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      Sonia Destri Lie had a full dance life before her return to Rio in 1997: she’d trained with the likes of Pina Bausch and Twyla Tharp, choreographed for movies and fashion shows, performed with Brazilian Suzana Braga’s company, and taught for several years in Germany.

      But almost none of that experience could have prepared her properly for the next phase of her career. Having piqued her interest while she was in Germany, hip-hop became Lie’s main focus back in her homeland. And the casting calls she held in Rio de Janeiro to produce hip-hop events changed her life.

      Masses of young men from Rio’s sprawling, violence-plagued favelas would show up to audition. None of them were formally trained, but she was struck by how many had their own powerful take on dance.

      “These guys come from outside the city, so I didn’t realize how good they were,” the affable, energized artistic director explains to the Straight over the phone from Brazil, barely containing the passion and enthusiasm that have helped her build a world-class company out of nothing. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’m gonna do something!’ I didn’t have any money. I just had the desire.”

      And so her Companhia Urbana de Dança was born in 2004, made up entirely of street dancers representing the cultural feijoada that is the real Brazil—black, indigenous, and European. The company now wows audiences around the globe with its athletic mix of street, hip-hop, samba, contemporary, and capoeira, and it’s finally coming to Vancouver on its first Canadian tour. But getting it started was far from easy for the eager Lie, who had trained in the disciplined world of ballet from a young age before moving into contemporary dance.

      Christopher Jones

      “It was too good to be true. I didn’t know how much to work with them,” says Lie, adding that she grew up in a suburb of Rio where she never saw life in the favelas. “At first they didn’t trust me. They were always late, they lived really far away—so the first tries were not really good. Then I realized I was going too fast. So the first year was just to have a company—just to have some hip-hop dancers together.

      “But once I understood their problems, they made me a better human being. It took about two years to learn to not raise my voice and not complain and to understand how hard it was for them,” she continues, describing how some dancers told her they couldn’t make it to rehearsal because occasionally there were violent drug dealers outside their front door and they simply couldn’t leave their homes. For many, it was also an arduous two-hour-plus bus ride into the city for practice. “I understood the company could be a safe place. I got to understand the way they think.”

      The roster of dancers has changed over the years, each bringing his own, colourful mix of Brazilian forms—the only training grounds often the baile funk scenes at clubs and discos around the favelas. For one of the pieces Lie is bringing to Vancouver, the party-happy Na Pista (“On the Dance Floor”), she’s added her first female dancer to the crew. But in choosing all her dancers, she’s held to one tenet: “They have to be good human beings. I can teach them dance. I cannot change them completely. And the desire has to be there. If you don’t have the desire, you can’t be here.”

      Lie says the dancers have a lot of input into the creative process. Some pieces grow directly, though not necessarily overtly, out of their stories of violence, racism, and poverty. Others, like ID: Entidades, read as sophisticated, flowing deconstructions of hip-hop. Lie explains the movement as a kind of metaphor for Rio, a city where the ugly and beautiful coalesce: she’s taking the dancers’ gritty experiences and turning them into something poetic. Meanwhile, the soundtrack features heart-pumping scores that run from electronic to Brazilian indigenous.

      The result is reportedly exhilarating, earning raves. The normally reserved New York Times even called the company’s dance “so wonderful that it seems miraculous”.

      Lie points to one big reason her dancers speak so directly to audiences: “When they go on-stage, it’s for real. They don’t go to play,” she says. “It’s to give something and receive something. It’s life!”

      Of course, Lie, through perseverance and passion, has also given her dancers something: they may once have had little hope of leaving the favela, but now she’s taking them around the world. The first tour to the U.S., in 2010, found many of the performers with tears in their eyes during the curtain call. “And I was crying too,” Lie says. “It was beautiful.”

      More than anything, Lie has come to understand her performers. “If you look to my dancers today, they are gentlemen. Now they understand the power of being a black, young, talented man in Rio,” she says with pride. “We also teach in a lot of favelas and in a lot of theatres here, so they are changing not just their own stories.”

      DanceHouse presents Companhia Urbana de Dança at the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday and Saturday (April 1 and 2).

      Jamie Kraus