The Ecology of a Dance Company

by Elizabeth Doud
Program Coordinator, Performing Americas Program
Companhia Urbana de Dança

A performance ensemble is a living organism that responds to its environment as a matter of course, and hopefully adapts and evolves through time to stay vital and relevant. Just like most organisms in the biosphere, it’s at risk for extinction at any moment. As a complex system of factors and disease affect its survival:  not the least of which, in the arts, is funding, the world cultural market, and the essential raw materials in the form of creativity and physical fortitude of the directors and performers.

I was thinking about the biological analogy this week, because I just had the very good luck of spending five days with Companhia Urbana de Dança (CUD) in Miami – the first stop on this Brazilian dance company’s eight-city U.S. tour – which is one of the touring projects of NPN’s Performing Americas Program this year. The first half of the tour included stops at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH; The Joyce Theatre, in New York, sponsored by 651 Arts, Brooklyn; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco; and Myrna Loy Center in Helena, MT.

Besides being impressed by the quality and singularity of CUD’s work again (we met the company back in 2012, and have been in conversation with them since), I was struck by what it takes to sustain their special brand of beauty: the hard work and generosity over time, in very difficult circumstances, with an unreasonable amount of conviction and high levels of uncertainty. I always knew they were great, but in a world where great isn’t a guarantee of endurance, what other ingredient is needed? What does this Brazilian hip-hop, contemporary Rio street-dance ensemble have that allows it to be – on its worst day – humble and stunning at the same time, in spite of the odds against its survival? How has this unsuspecting choreographer and company survived and thrived for almost a decade of marginalization and turmoil to shine in exacting truth like a funky, elegant and brazen hip-hop church hymn capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the ranks of the best, smiling and sweating from the heart, again and again?


This term is being used a lot now in the environmental movement to describe circumstances or species that will outlive the harsh and pitiless shifts of climate change. What will dictate who survives these cataclysmic modifications that are hard to predict and accelerated beyond our estimation? It’s a thing that they call resilience, and it is what we think it means, and more: organisms and systems that have resilience bounce back from difficulties more easily and more intact. They are more elastic and not only survive, but evolve and thrive more readily because they have practiced biological grace in the face of unpredictability and environmental warfare.

I loved hearing Artistic Director and Choreographer Sonia Destri Lie’s account of the company’s journey (read her interview in Time Out New York here). She has taken a group of young people and created – with them collectively – a community of artists who know exactly who they are and what they are doing at every turn, while still being in a state of inquiry and growth. They are redefining the world favela in the psyche of Brazil and the world by making their dance and their daily work a political, as well as aesthetic, response to their environment. They are doing it with the physical poetry that our species is so good at. They are here to teach us a little bit about the international soul of hip-hop, and resilience, along the way.

March 2014

Funding for the Performing Americas Program is provided by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and, for Los Angeles artists and arts organizations, the City of Los Angeles, Department of Cultural Affairs.

The Performing Americas Program is a partnership between the National Performance Network and La RED (Red de Promotores Culturales de Latinoamerica y el Caribe).

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