Q&A: Sonia Destri Lie talks about her vision behind Companhia Urbana de Dança

Sonia Destri Lie talks about Companhia Urbana de Dança, her hip-hop group that performs at the Joyce Theater

Companhia Urbana de Dança

Companhia Urbana de Dança Photograph: Renato Mangolin

The Joyce Theater heats up the tedious winter months with a special festival highlighting Brazilian dance companies Mimulus Companhia de Dança, Focus Cia de Dança, DanceBrazil and Companhia Urbana de Dança, led by Sonia Destrie Lie. In anticipation of her troupe's run, Lie talks about how a white, Pina Bausch-obessed choreographer found freedom in hip-hop.

As part of its festival focusing on Brazilian dance, the Joyce Theater hosts the splendid Companhia Urbana de Dança. Led by artistic director Sonia Destrie Lie, the group demonstrates a particularly spiritual brand of hip-hop; in works like ID:ENTIDADES, Lie creates a landscape for the dancers—young men from the favelas, or slums, of Rio de Janeiro—in which the vocabulary of hip-hop movement is deconstructed and ultimately reborn. This year, in honor of her New York premiere NA PISTA, which means “on the dance floor,” she’s added a woman to her company. As Lie puts it, “A party needs a girl, right?”

I would like to know more about your dance history. Where are you from?
I am from Rio de Janeiro. I was born and raised in the suburbs—middle-high class, but the suburbs. It is not like in the States. It was a traditional working-class neighborhood. But in this particular suburb, because of the British influence, we had a lot of trees, all the streets were very clean, and we had parties and tea meetings. My father was a lawyer in a factory, and my mother was 100 percent a mother, but she was also an artist. Everything she did came full of beauty, from clothes to food. And she was a painter as well. It was an Italian family, full of love, charm and mess—of course! I have one sister and two brothers. Life was good! But my father kept us away from the big city. I had to learn from the beginning how to fight for my dreams and desires. For example, I would wake up at 4am to go to school after coming back from rehearsal at 2am. It was also hard to convince my father that dance was my life. It took a while, but I am very good at negotiation. [Laughs] I think he finally believed it when he started seeing my name in magazines and on TV credits.

When did you start studying dance? What style was it?
This suburb, in particular, had a factory run by the British. And along with them came a series of traditions not usual in those working-class neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro. As the British had to live and work in there, they tried to turn it into a nice and pleasant place and maintain their traditions. They brought recitals and ballet classes to a local club. I had a French teacher named Madame Marianne; there was a pianist and a wood floor. These activities, the way they were made—with charm and elegance—were and still are uncommon in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. My sister did ballet, and I followed along. I was four. Today I see my pictures at six years old already ruling the stage! Funny. I traveled to the U.S. to study. I tried to get a scholarship at NYU, but I had no money to live there. I also took Twyla Tharp workshops and classes at the Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham and José Limón studios. When I got married to a dancer, we moved to Curitiba, in southern Brazil, and there I finished my degree in ballet. I had a chance to perform as a soloist in few pieces with Hugo Delavalle and Val Volly, both choreographers that used to like me. [Laughs] But I also thought that many possibilities could be good, so I took boxing classes and jiujitsu as well. I was also teaching in a course for psychologists in psychodrama at the Federal University in Curitiba. 

What drew you to dance? Who are you most influenced by and why?
My French teacher told my mother I had talent. My sister left, and 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. But when I was 15, I had the chance to go to a professional company, and my father said, “No more dance!” After this situation, I left the ballet and went to university. There, I found out that they had dance classes. So I was taking jazz and modern dance; I took dance classes all the time. I never thought about it. It was like breathing. I studied psychology at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro/UFRJ, and I decided that my work should be movement plus dance plus mental disturbance. I worked with patients at hospitals for a while, and I thought it would be my life. If there was dance involved, I was happy. Because of my schedule at the university, I had to take class with the guys—men’s classes—so I discovered how strong I was by going through all of those male routines. I found myself doing jumps, a [challenging] barre, diagonals, on the floor doing push-ups and so on. I was also in contemporary classes. At this time, I created my first dance company, Ballet Independente. Just girls. Beautiful. It was a contemporary-dance company.

What else was happening at that time?
I was living in a central part of Rio de Janeiro, where I had moved because I had to study at the university, which was far from my family. There I had the opportunity to take classes when foreign companies came to Rio. I became a “rat,” going everywhere, seeing everything: from the Beijing Opera to Béjart. I did not have enough money to go to all the performances, but the doormen of the theaters knew me because I was always there, and they allowed me to enter for free. I was young. 

What work struck you?
I learned a lot from Alwin Nikolais—there was a teacher in Rio, Gerry Maretski, who used to bring his dancers all the time. Also from Twyla Tharp, Jennifer Muller and Pina Bausch. I was a good student. I was always 100 percent there. At this time, I was teaching dance classes as well. I was reading all types of books, from Rilke, Jung, Freud, Foucault and Deleuze, to books about how to build choreography. Alwin Nikolais showed me that everybody can move, and if you are a good “dancing designer,” you can put people onstage with dignity, and they will dance. Twyla Tharp showed me how dance can be full of possibilities and also how far you can take one movement. And how not to have fear! Jennifer Muller showed me how two dancers together can be a group. José Limón made me feel beautiful when I danced. Suzana Braga showed me that I could run a group; how to understand conceptions and to be fearless. Marly Tavares and Lennie Dale introduced me to jazz dance and showed how to have fun with its quality. Val Volly said to me: “You can be a choreographer.” I was 18 years old.

Are you drawn to the work of Pina Bausch in particular?
It was love at the first moment. Pina showed me that dance could go to different places at the same time. And that there was and there is a place for freedom. No need for a logical story, but a necessity to look for the beauty inside of this. And that dance has no limits and that the choreography is always alive, always breathing and never finished: The idea or steps are never ready. It’s not an open work or a work-in-progress forever, but choreography has to breathe and you as a choreographer can go with it. Choreography has its own life and time. I was so into Pina that I knew Café Müller from the beginning to the end. People used to give me presents like books of Pina, portraits, posters and so on. I had pictures everywhere—like the bathroom, the kitchen.… I was a Pina maniac!

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