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 does a woman affect the group?  Why just one?
She is strong. She is 20 years old. And she loves to dance. She lives far away. When I have rehearsal at 9am, she has to wake up at 4am to get there, and she’s never late. She never has excuses. When I first started the company, the only time I had to rehearse was from 11pm to 3am, and no girls could come. So life did the selection for me. It was the reason that I just got boys in the beginning. Now I wanted one. The guys respect her. They like her, and they admire her determination. And if I do not have more, it is because I do not have the conditions to give support. I would love to have two girls and 11 dancers in total.

You have degrees in psychology and ballet. How do both or either play into what you do now?
In every way. The ballet discipline keeps me alive and in a state of alert. I believe in rehearsal, I believe in discipline, I believe in harmony of movement onstage, even though in the end, I break all the rules. So, how could I break them if I didn’t know or have them? And it is important for the dancers to feel that with all the problems they have—the distance, the financial problems, the difficulty with technique—that the company is a safe place, because it is a place that needs to be respected and that respects them.

One point that struck me the first time I saw your company perform was how you were deconstructing hip-hop—you would emphasize the beginning or the end of a movement, but not a trick. Could you tell me about your choreographic process?
I always say that my choreographic process is better than what I bring onstage. [Laughs] I build movements. I give the dancers a chance to build movements. We think together about every single movement. We ask questions. We have a lot of fun with ideas of the pieces—we cry, we play. And I know when the movement is good or not. I know when the piece is good or not. But I need to work. I need to put them to work. So I think, Let’s go for it because it will be better along the way. It is a risk? All the time. But I know that I need to give them time to understand this new way of dealing with the new. It’s a dance of freedom, a dance of joy, but they do not know it. They believe that is the dance from the video clip. So I bring that movement they know. I ask them to think about that movement. I ask them to see the harmony of that movement and why it is there exactly at that moment. Not before and not after. I talk about any movement as poetry, as a text, as prose and ask them to interpret this movement with this idea and  possibilities. It can be a top rock, a freeze, the popping sentence.… It does not matter. We treat this as the most important thing in the world. The challenge? To make it your own movement. I tell them to be responsible for the movement they choose. Sometimes I get it and sometimes not. But my very important point is to give them a chance to sign the movement. They are having an opportunity, and it is why I am here: to give them an opportunity. What you see as “deconstructing hip-hop,” I call giving a new opportunity to that movement, to give an opportunity to that dancer! But you are right. It is exactly what I do, but with a different starting point.

So what are you after? What are you searching for? 
It’s not just about money—though support is always welcome—fame, success, how many performances or where. It is all about them. It is about giving them a name and a family name—a place in this world. This dance, hip-hop, did not belong to us. Samba, capoeira, maculelê, jongo, gafieira belong to us, but not hip-hop. So how could I compete with any other B-boys? No way, no chance. My dancers learned from me or from videos, and sometimes when we have a chance to bring someone good in one style, they can learn some more technique. But is that what we are looking for? No, 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. My grandmother used to say that when you look for something you already have, when you find it you do not recognize it. So I think they have talent, skills and desire. 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. And I can tell you it is a lot of work for such a simple sentence.

How difficult is it for them?
I had a dancer collapse during a rehearsal because he hadn’t eaten. He had no money to eat. They take two- to-three-hour bus rides to get to rehearsal. Sometimes they cannot come because the police are fighting with the drug dealers, and they cannot leave their places. But when they come late…I’m there as one of the toughest and most demanding choreographers in the world complaining because they came late. Inside I’m dying because I know the fight they have; life is hard for a black young guy living on the edge. Life is hard for those who live in the favelas. How can I help them? How can I help them to have an opportunity to show their talent and change their lives? By doing what I am doing: as a dance company. I decided that we were going to build it: build a new movement, a new way of dancing, a new way of showing the world who they are, of showing their families that they are able to grow up, of showing how racist Brazilian society is. I do not have plans to make them dance without shoes, for example. Or to have amazing costumes or amazing scenery. I want them as they are: talented dancers that came from the streets. And more, I want them to show the world that being black, poor, Brazilian—third world—and having talent that they could change the game through dance. And to show them as protagonists of their own transformation. I want to make the difference. It is also easy to say and hard to make happen.

Is there improvisation in your work?
Yes. Not onstage, but during the process we have a lot of exercises, a lot of routines and a lot of ways to take from them the potential they have. And as they are very different, I make them dance what I call “the dance of the other” to get to know other movement in their bodies. I do love that; sometimes you can have beautiful and amazing results. Or sometimes I create everything and ask them to read what I am trying to say or how they see my movements. But for years they had problems memorizing or keeping the plan onstage.

What is most important to you about any dance, meaning not just your own?
I like dance! I like technique! I like when you have so much that you do not need to prove anything. It’s all there—no egos, no effort to be something that you are not. I also like amazing scenery with beautiful lights. But if there is no truth, there’s no dance. I am getting old and I have seen so many things. So dance for me has to give or take me to an emotional state or surprise me. I do like amazing Russian, American, French ballet divas with jumps and pirouettes, but to really get me, these performances have to be perfect or insane as in unexpected, creative, impeccable, surprising or just plain simple. I love Jennifer Muller’s Lovers, Twyla Tharp with Baryshnikov, Marie-Agnès Gillot in Béjart’s Boléro and Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring. I do love amazing hip-hop and creative dancers. Crazy kids doing amazing things. I like the brave, the fearless that can seize the movement as their own.

What are your personal choreographic concerns?
My work involves the survival of the company. I know that when people watch my work and the company, we give off the feeling of being comfortable as a [business] structure, but is not true. My house is my office now and a safe place for the dancers. We are looking forward: to keep working every day with a salary or not; here, even with the sun and Copacabana, life is unglamorous. We have a sense of humor, but we are running against time. We want to get a cultural center, a theater and our own rehearsal room and a sponsor that keeps us alive for more than six months. Along the way, I've met important people who have helped a lot: Monica Lima is a Ph.D. in African and Brazilian history who made me think in a different way and taught me how to stay alert to signs of racism and prejudice. Rodrigo Marçal and Felipe Storino gave me soundtracks so full of flavor and daring. My amazing lighting designer Renato Machado. We have a manager for the first time, Ivan Cavalcanti. I have this company being moved by my madness and courage. I have to have weekly projects. I have to invent situations, partnerships and possibilities that make me see the short- and medium-term sustenance of the company every day. But I do think about having the repertoire of the company deal with recognition of the civilizing values of African origin, encouraging reflection on them in Brazilian culture in all its diversity and the territories of origin for young dancers. The performances of the company seek to translate these identities and diversities with a Carioca—Rio de Janeiro—Brazilian and African-descent accent, but at the same time be translatable to the world by placing it in the affirmative of contemporary dance. In 2012, I got an award to create a new work, and it was the first time in eight years of the company that I had six months to think, create, develop and put a work onstage with research. It was pure magic. And it is the reason that I gave it the name EU DANÇO: I dance.

Companhia Urbana de Dança performs at the Joyce Theater Mar 3–6.

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