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

How did you meet your dancers? What were you looking for?
As I said, I got a few from this first experience in the fashion show and a few during the audition for this film. I had 400 dancers from the favelas coming to this audition—a beautiful experience. A few others dancers knocked on my door. Finally, I got my 11 dancers. At that time I did not know how the journey would turn out. I think I wanted to give them a chance to understand the “grown-up world.” And also I wanted to give myself a chance to understand kids that I had never been in touch with before. I was raised also by a black “second” mother. My mother took care of a young black woman that lived with us for 50 years, and she took care of me; we loved each other so much. I have Afro-descendant relatives; I have a mixed family. So I knew I could help. I knew I could do something. At least I thought I would. I knew I did not want traditional circus hip-hop. I was looking for good kids: shining eyes, good hearts. I knew I could make them move the way I wanted. I need kids who understand what respect means and who want to change, in a way, the place they came from. I knew I could teach them how to democratize knowledge. Now I understand that I wanted too much. I can say I’ve had three different companies: the first, from 2004 to 2006; the second, from 2006 to 2008; and the one I love, from 2009 to today.

What struck you about their talent?
Desire. I want young dancers with desire in their eyes. Because I had no sponsor, I had no money—I didn’t even have a place to rehearse. They lived far away, so the desire had to be bigger than the necessity! If they had the desire, I knew I could put them onstage.

I read that you didn’t know much about the favelas where the dancers were from. When you understood that, how did it affect your choreography? Did it?
I knew about favelas. It was far away from my life, but not far away from the places you have in Rio. You have favelas everywhere! And it affects everything. Like I said, I had—during these nine years—three different groups of dancers. My first team was cool and easy. But just a few could really dance. They were friends: full of desire, a few very talented and so on. But they needed money to support their families, and the time for them to dance was quite impossible. Still, they understood me, and they liked me, which is good when you work together every day. That was a great group.

What about the second group?
My second round was a very hard team. I still had a few from the first team, and I got new dancers that knocked on my door and a few I got from the film. But at this time, they all came from the favelas, and everyone had issues and things to deal with—no father figures; mothers who had left; girlfriends they could not trust; no formal education. Because I knew I was going to this French festival for the second time—it was sold-out the first time—I need to give more and be more. And at this time I was already understanding the “game” of the curators, the directors and so on. But I was not understanding the dancers. Why was it so hard in the beginning? Because I did not understand how they could always be so late. I did not understand how they could care less about this chance they were getting. I could not understand that they came from a family full of women that left them when they were children. And there I was: a white woman, keeping my word, telling them what to do, what time to get there, how to behave and what to dance, and asking them to think about dance. This time, I was doing everything—all the steps and choreography. They had a lot of difficulty dealing with it, and I think that I pushed too hard because I knew that to have a dance company with black dancers that came from the favelas and so on, I should be careful. Not with them, but with others: the media, the press release and so on. I did not want to use them. For me, it was just the place they came from. I wanted respect because they were a good dancers, I wanted respect because the work was good, I wanted respect because we were working hard, but they did not see it the same way. I did not want to have FAVELA in bold letters, not the way people use that in their Playbill. First, I wanted to be a dance company and not a social project. Second, because the only way I knew how to deal with them was with care and treating them as professionals. But I could feel that they really did not understand what I was talking about or what kind of work I was proposing. They wanted to know how much money they would get and that was enough. It was how they had been educated. At this point I already had sold my car. I moved from a four-room flat to a one-room apartment. I had used all my money, and it was never enough.

That must have felt impossible.
I think that there was a situation to deal with: I was not black, I was not poor, and I did not come from the favelas. And I was a woman! But it was not just the dancers, it was also the way the contemporary-dance scene saw the company here in Rio. Like, how come? How is she making such good work in just a few years with black kids? Companies in Brazil take 15 or 20 years to get a name, and she is getting this in four years? I could see the racism all around. I could see that I had a fragile company, but even so I got two awards as a choreographer that gave me money to support them during this time. I used my personal money to support the company. But as God is not playing around with me, my third team came, and it is the one you know. I still have dancers from the beginning, a few from the second round, and a few came in the middle of the way. But my company that I am so proud to present is what you’ve seen since ID:ENTIDADES.

What were your previous works?
My first work, ZIRIGUIDUM, was about the samba because I thought that could be interesting to talk about a subject they knew so well. My second, BATALHA, was about the struggle they have every day to survive and to get home safe. And the third one was SUITE FUNK that brought us back to the comfortable zone and talked about the funk ball they used to go in their favelas. It was a good work. We got an award in Rio for that. People really like this piece. But I knew it was green and would take time to be ready. So until then, it really affected my work because it was more about them and no longer about me, and that was great. And one day I realized that to be with this company was and is everything to me. They give me joy, they give me a political way to look at the world. I feel myself with a kind of mission to be here for them. Every day is a day to talk about things. Every rehearsal is a day and an opportunity to change. Every performance is a chance to show their potential as citizens and human beings. Really. I am not being naive or sweet—two things I am not, for real. But it’s a chance for them to be good as men, as a human beings, to be better dancers. And I was thinking and working in this way, and I knew that one day they would be ready to try something new and it came with ID:ENTIDADES and CHAPA QUENTE. We started working as a team, with respect and partnership. My most recent piece is EU DANÇO—8 solos no geral.

How many dancers are in the company?
Eight dancers.
I heard that you have a woman now. Why?
One day I got an invitation: I had less than 35 days to create a piece, so I thought that the idea of a party could be good because at least we were going to have fun. NA PISTA—“on the dance floor”—came from this situation. And a party needs a girl, right? That was the reason. So Jessica Nascimento came to the group.

You might also like

Dance events calendar

  1. The Grand Paradise

    The Grand Paradise: Theater review by Adam Feldman...

  2. Hot Chocolate...

    Regress to childhood with skillfully concocted mug...

  3. O, Earth

    O, Earth: Theater review by Helen ShawOne of the l...

239 more events »


Subscribe to Time Out New York on Spotify for playlists and recommendations from our Music team.

Check out New York's best restaurants, hottest street style, cool apartments and more.