Companhia Urbana de Danca wows crowd with hip-hop hybrid

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      A DanceHouse presentation. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday, April 1. Continues April 2

      Mired in economic and political crisis, Brazil has been the source of some very bad news over the past month. But as DanceHouse producer Jim Smith said at the opening of Companhia Urbana de Danca's first Vancouver show Friday night, this was a chance to witness a more positive side of the country—and, we might add, some of the most magnificent hair you've ever seen. The show culminated in a whooping, clapping standing O for the cast's hip-hop-battle curtain call.

      If anyone has seen the hardships of Brazil close up, it's the company's cast members, recruited from the city's favelas--the violence-plagued slums that sprawl outside Rio's picturesque core. But the entire second half of the evening, titled Na Pista, was a call to party. Set under a disco ball, it found the fabulously tressed members—wild, bleached Afros, gorgeously flailing dreads, and even a curly double man bun—swaggering in their best silk jackets and pants. It began with the most entertaining and virtuosic game of musical chairs you've ever watched. Then the piece spun out into a beautifully structured pastiche of dance forms—the pop-and-locking, floor spins, and rippling arms of hip-hop meeting samba, capoeira, and contemporary stylings.

      It's part game of one-upmanship, part playful fight over sexy sole female dancer Jessica Nascimento, but more than anything else, it is an act of exhilarating freedom. Artistic director Sonia Destri Lie, the ballet-trained, sophisticated overseeing eye of the company, has said the piece is culled from the dances her troupe members perform at home and in the streets of the favelas. And these guys own the moves in a piece where the celebratory somehow morphs into the revolutionary.

      Companihia Urbana de Dance
      Renato Mangolin

      Here's arguing that what they do in the first half of this double bill is even more subversive. In the much more sedate and contemplative ID:Entidades, hip-hop is intricately deconstructed and reinterpreted into flowing, dreamlike contemporary dance that plays out in complicated patterns across the stage. But what's most interesting about it is how it uses the moves of street dance to get at deeper ideas: when the performers tumble across the stage or whipsaw around in floor spins, it becomes a subtle metaphor for struggle. There's a gorgeous vignette where men twirl around another like whirring tops, and it immediately captures what it's like to be caught in a chaotic urban world that's out of your control.

      Lie has helped the dancers find a vulnerability that doesn't normally come with the attitude of hip-hop, and set against the skittering, hypnotic electronic score, with its hints of oppressive urban machination, the effect is mesmerizing and moving. The extended sequences in silence, where solo dancers express themselves in the spotlight, can sometimes feel long, but they force you to focus on the humans in front of you—ones who are baring their souls.

      These are hip-hop bodies, dressed in baggy pants and sneakers, but what Companhia Urbana de Danca is getting at is something much more complex than you might expect going into the show. When you inevitably jump to your feet and start clapping to the beat by the end, you're not just applauding a breathtaking performance, but cheering these guys for what they've both achieved and overcome.