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

What companies have you danced with?
Not many. I became a choreographer when I was very young. I realized that I did not fit in an ensemble or a group where I'd dance behind the others. I was always wanting to change something. [Laughs] Here in Rio, I danced with Suzana Braga, who was the most important choreographer I had in my life. She was so modern, so ahead of her time. I was 17 years old, and I got to be her assistant. She was insane! She gave me a lot. The first time I presented my choreography was at the Triade dance group in Curitiba. After that, back in Rio, I formed Ballet Independente. Here I got my first award. After that, I worked in musicals, TV shows and then at the age of 27, I was running a dance ensemble on a local TV show. I also had a career as assistant director in Evita. And I directed videos and musicals for TV. I used to learn fast, but sometimes I felt as if I was not ready and not mature enough. But the opportunity was there, and I grabbed it. At this point in life—also being so fearless—I learned that to have a good team is the most important thing. I am a “partnership” person. My soul has a temper—I am getting better with the age. But my heart knows that I need the other to exist. It seems so obvious, but it is not. It took a while to understand complicity and partnership.

When were you first exposed to hip-hop or street dance? How did that affect you?
During the ’80s, Rio de Janeiro was full of dance, art and dance companies. When the end of the ’80s came, this boom of dance was over. I was already a choreographer and working at the station TV Manchete, which was an amazing school, but by the end of the ’80s, there was no more work, no challenges, no happiness, so I sent my résumé to a very good art center in Germany called Tanzhaus. They invited me to give classes in Brazilian jazz dance, contemporary dance and dance workout, and there I met Marvin A. Smith, an American teacher that came to this center, like me, to teach. I already had a career in Brazil, but in Germany I had to start all over again. He was the one that introduced me to hip-hop. There I was in Germany starting all over again and taking classes, giving classes, planning to have a company. And Marvin was teaching class next to my room. We became friends, and he showed me a way of moving that I had never seen. And more, I could see happiness in that kind of movement. In Germany, hip-hop was already a commercial kind of dance. His classes was always full of different kinds of dancers, with different backgrounds. I loved it, and that meeting changed my life.

What does this style of dance give you as a choreographer in terms of its range or emotional capacity?
I was in Germany working with a kind of dance that they—German choreographers and dancers—knew how to do pretty well. And more, I was missing my creativity and missing my joy. I felt that being a contemporary choreographer in Germany was so redundant at that time. I felt a kind of darkness.

What do you mean?
I’ll try to explain redundant without being dramatic or unkind. The technique and contemporary dance in Germany is there forever. I had to learn and understand the dance and technique. I had to understand how to put that stuff onstage. And for that, I always had to use my memories, my personal stories and my pain. It was as if I had to talk to a cloudy-and-cold day; for me, coming from this city of color and samba, it required a lot. So hip-hop gave me hope and a challenge. In one year, I was working with Marvin as his assistant. For me, that was interesting because I had had that professional life in Brazil, and now I was learning something new and being the assistant of someone younger, talented and new in the business. I got to learn so much! So hip-hop at that age—I was 32—brought me back to dance. 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.

How did you form this company?
I got to be a good hip-hop dancer, and also I traveled a lot with Marvin, and he built an amazing career. I was close to him, and we became like shadows of each other, so people knew me as well. But there was a fire in my flat in Düsseldorf, and I had to move and wait for the owner to fix it. That was a dramatic moment. I went back to Rio and while I was here 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. And hip-hop here in Rio started, as all over the world, as a periphery movement. Here I was: almost 40 years old, a white woman, talking about hip-hop with those kids. It was a hard time! So I decided to become a producer and bring Marvin to Rio. I invited the best teachers and MCs and break-dancers and DJs. We created “JUICE—A Carioca Hip-Hop Event.” It was great; there are a few dancers that say they had a life before they got to know us and the real life after us—as dancers. That makes me very happy. After the fire, I was not feeling comfortable in Germany anymore, and I realized that I had an amazing chance to build something in Rio. I came back and became a kind of reference of break-dance and B-boy style. I got an invitation to direct—with no budget—a musical with a young hip-hop crew. The kids were amazing.

What was that experience like?
It was so good: There were drums, an MC, graffiti, live music, a few kids that could sing. It was beautiful, and people came to see it, because they thought it was by a gringo choreographer. I thought, I should try this experience again. I was the first one to have black kids dancing with singers in a different urban dance style on TV there. The same week I got an invitation to be a choreographer in a very important fashion show, Fashion Rio. The theme was B-boys. I had to audition B-boys and hip-hop dancers. It 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. I got one “maybe” from the Breakin’ Convention, but they needed to see my work first. So I invited a few of the dancers—I had already gotten to know [current company member] Tiago Sousa—and we started. From 12 dancers, just two stayed. It was so hard at that time. I invited a few more; I got nice dancers, but they had no idea how to perform or to understand a different approach: the street versus the stage. They used to dance in hip-hop dance festivals or just on the streets. I created ZIRIGUIDUM with samba music and kind of interesting beats, but they were not mature enough to go to a professional stage and I knew it. So I knew the Breakin’ Convention was not going to happen. But as we say here: When one door closes, God gives you a window to open.

What happened?  
I met—the same day—a friend of mine who said, “Jérôme Bel will talk tonight. Do you want to come? It will be at the French Consulate.” I went and there I met the director of a French festival who had heard good things about me and about what I was doing and asked me if he could see a rehearsal. He came, and he liked my work and invited me to go to his festival in France. First, I had a few performances in Rio, and the contemporary scene got to know I was back and that now I was doing this kind of work. So here in 2004, I took this first step. I started a dance company. And it was fresh, new, very interesting; people used to say, “It wasn’t [Sonia]!” At the same time, I knew that I had to put this work together and be good enough to perform in France. But it would take two years to happen. I met this director in 2004 and the festival would happen in 2006. From 2004 to 2006, people already knew that a new dance company was coming.

What drove you to want to start it?
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.” Who can decline one young kid saying it and crying? Not me. That was the reason. 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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