The desire in the eyes of the dancers in Companhia Urbana de Dança fuels the creativity of its Brazilian choreographer and artistic director. “We definitely are not an ordinary dance company,” Sonia Destri Lie (known as Destri) said of the ensemble she co-founded in 2005, its members recruited from Rio de Janeiro’s poor suburbs and favelas (mostly African slums within the city).
On March 18, Destri and her eight dancers will showcase their unique blend of contemporary Brazilian and hip-hop dance forms at the BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown.
“The work of Companhia Urbana de Dança brings its dancers’ identities, testimonials and attitudes to the stage, and it does that with a ‘carioca,’ an Afro-Brazilian accent, which is nevertheless universal,” Destri said. “The group is firmly positioned in the most contemporary urban dance scene in Brazil and internationally. It highlights the talents of young, black and poor Brazilians in the modern world from an affirming and pluralist stance.”
These dancers, she observed, “discover being Afro Brazilians in here. They realize that ‘they can’ in here. They realize how beautiful and talented they are in here. They learn the importance to get on time and in time here. They discover that they are professional and people will (or will not) respect them because they are doing what should be doing. They know today that is up to them to change history–individual, society and family. They understand that this is the job, the work they always wanted.”
Raised in a middle-class family of “lawyers, engineers, an architect and a painter,” Destri started ballet lessons at age 4. “Madame Marianne told my mother I had talent,” she recalled. “I kept taking the classes. I never doubted myself, I never missed a class. I loved the piano, the pliés, the adagios! The atmosphere, the challenges, the feeling of moving around the dance studio—and I knew I could dance.” By 6, she said she was “already ruling the stage.”
At age 15, Destri’s father refused to allow her to join a professional dance company. “You need to look for a career, (and) not an artistic one,” the lawyer decreed. She proceeded to do both, earning degrees in psychology and ballet from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, while also training in modern, contemporary and jazz dance as well as capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that uses dance, acrobatics and music.
“When I was very young,” Destri formed two more conventional dance groups, Ballet Independente and Pés Alados (Winged Feet). She studied with such respected choreographers as Pina Bausch, Alwin Nikolais and Twyla Tharp.
Hip-hop and urban dance came later. “I got to know it after age 30. (It was) love at the first class,” Destri said. The introduction occurred in 1990s Germany where she was teaching “a kind of dance that German choreographers and dancers knew how to do pretty well: contemporary dance plus theater.” But living there, she said, “I was missing my creativity and missing my joy. I felt that being a contemporary choreographer in Germany was taking me to a feeling of darkness–cold, grey, alone.”
Within the year, that changed. At Tanz Hause, an international center for contemporary dance based in Düsseldorf, Destri met and became assistant to American choreographer Marvin A. Smith. “I got to learn so much! And I remember I thought, ‘Wow! This is what you call contemporary. You can use other styles, you can play with time, you can use so much vocabulary, and you can also use your knowledge. There is in the urban language the freedom I always talk about or am looking for.”
Under Smith’s tutelage, Destri became proficient at hip-hop, and the pair “did beautiful things—a class for 500 kids, classes always full, fashion shows, an invitation to work with the Spice Girls,” she said. “We became like shadows of each other.”
But when fire gutted Destri’s Düsseldorf flat in 1997, she returned to Rio. “While I was there, I could see that people did not know that dance—not just the technique of the hip-hop dance, but the freedom of that dance, its importance and how revolutionary it was.”
Seeing the untapped talents of the young nonprofessional urban street dancers who responded to the casting calls for the hip-hop events Destri produced, she “realized I had an amazing chance to build something in Rio.” Dancer Tiago Sousa told her, “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 going to be the black kids that dance from the favelas. And we are never going to 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.”
Sousa’s plea was convincing, as were the statistics. “Current studies show,” Destri said, “that a young, poor black man dies every 25 minutes from street violence in Brazil. That’s approximately two young, poor black men per hour, 48 per day, 335 per week and 1,344 per month. This number approximates the death toll of many ongoing wars around the world. So, my challenge is to try to grow, make them grow in the middle of this war.”
“The desire in their eyes” reassured Destri that she “could put them onstage.” With neither sponsors nor money, they created the musical “JUICE—A Carioca Hip-Hop Event,” “the first show someone put onstage using urban dance in the whole of Brazil,” Destri said.
Now, more than a decade later, Destri said, “Over the years, we got old together and we kept the same desire’s flame. No annual support or sponsors, but they understand the fight. And as warriors, they need to wake up ready. They need to be in shape, they need to believe in each other and challenge the body and the technique. We work in a constant hurricane and being like this, sometimes my pieces show the way we work.”
For the future, Destri “would like to have a space where they could take classes, give classes, share information … a place that they could feel safe and know that that place exists and has our dream there.” She also wants to start a dance company that will give 15- and 16-year-olds an opportunity to break out of their poverty.
It’s not just about money or fame for Destri—although she acknowledged that “support is always welcome. …For me, it is all about them. It is about giving them a name and a family name—a place in this world. Also, I want them to have bodies that can answer, that know a way to get there, but not the way. I want to use hip-hop as an instrument and not as a final result. I want them to come with an empty glass, so life can fill it.”
“They have talent, skills and desire,” she said. “We just need time and dignity to make it better. A sponsor could give them a future. But until then, we are living one day at a time.”
Companhia Urbana de Dança will perform at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 18 in the Studio Theater at BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. For tickets, ranging from $18 to $34, call 240-912-1058 or visit www.blackrockcenter.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.
Companhia Urbana de Dança Video