Sunday, April 3, 2016

Companhia Urbana de Dança at the Playhouse

The latest season of DanceHouse concluded last night at the Playhouse with a presentation of two works by the Rio-based company Companhia Urbana de Dança--in their Canadian debut no less. Led by Artistic Director and choreographer Sonia Destri Lie (who, judging by the final moments of the pre-show talk, is a force of nature), the company combines hip-hop with contemporary and Afro-Brazilian social dance forms, creating a hybrid style that is reflective of the mixed backgrounds of its eight core members, all of whom have grown up in the favelas of Rio.

The evening opened with ID: Entidades, which in its structure, isolation of individual movement patterns, and sparse use of music, almost struck me as a formalist study of the fusion of hip hop and contemporary dance technique. The piece begins with the eight dancers (seven men and one woman) sitting on the floor in a line upstage, elbows on knees, like they are on a break in the studio and waiting to be called upon to try out some new combination of choreography. One of them gets up and advances towards a waist-high beam of soft light emanating from the wings; he begins to slowly undulate his head and torso as he moves horizontally across the stage. Because it is hard to see the lower half of his body, it is as if he is floating magically in space, or bobbing on the surface of water. Eventually the other dancers will arise from their sedentary positions and advance toward the audience, each of them also showcasing what impossibly fluid things they can do with their apparently boneless bodies: an arm wave that ripples back and forth like a snapped elastic band; a slow back bend in which the dancer's head almost reaches the floor before an elbow emerges for support; a handstand and leg freeze that is held for what feels like a full minute. Suspension has always been a key element of hip hop--the ability of b-boys and girls, in the midst of their pyrotechnic freestyle routines to hold a position for just a beat longer than seems humanly possible, or to pop, float, slide and glide their liquid limbs and bodies as if attached to invisible strings. But in slowing things down even further, Destri Lie also shows how such moves overlap with many release-based currents in postmodern dance, the troubling of poles between verticality and low-to-the-ground, balance and asymmetry being common to both styles. Indeed, at moments during several of the partnering sequences in ID I was almost reminded of contact improvisation. And in perhaps my favourite section of the entire work, a deconstructed trio featuring explosive unison downrock footwork punctuated by the occasional hand spin, airflare and leg freeze, the dancers' turned backs during the occasional pauses in the routine suggested to me a similar eschewing of a virtuosic presentational style in much contemporary dance.

Not that Companhia Urbana de Dança isn't above shamelessly playing to its audience, as was demonstrated by the second piece on the program, Na Pista. This work, which the program note explains was born from each dancer's investigation of his or her roots, begins with several members of the company entering from the audience, all nattily dressed, exuberantly shouting at each other, and seemingly pumped to party. On stage, which is open to the back safety wall and wings, a cluster of chairs is positioned in the centre, underneath a disco ball. One of the dancers calls to the DJ for some music and the men begin busting some moves in a circle around the chairs. The music stops suddenly and everyone scrambles to find a seat, with one in their lot laughingly out of luck. He removes one of the chairs and himself upstage and the game of musical chairs continues in this manner until there are only two dancers and one chair remaining. Except our expectation that a winner will emerge from this pair is thwarted when, after some cat and mouse house jiving around the chair that begins to escalate in the scale of displayed power moves, the rest of the crew, cheering from the sidelines, decides to join in and a running circle around the chair begins. It's at this point that the lone female member of the company emerges from the wings, joins the circle and, of course, secures ownership of the chair when the music finally stops. Na Pista takes its joyful energy and ethos from the idea of what it means to be part of a dance crew, in which cooperation and competition go hand in hand. Thus, the dancers work together seamlessly from the upstage chorus line of chairs to create amazing unison movement (which includes perfectly synchronized breaks to sip from their water bottles). But they also get to bust out individually to showcase their own signature styles, or to have friendly dance offs in pairs. It's a combination that is hard to resist and at the conclusion of the piece the audience was instantly on its feet, a mutual love fest that was rewarded with a bonus bit of b-boying as the company took its bows.


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