Somewhere Between Hip-Hop and Ballet, Companhia Urbana de Dança Offers a Rare Experience

For the vigorous minority of East Tennesseans who follow dance, this weekend may be the event of the year. The world-renowned Companhia Urbana de Dança will be performing at the Clayton Center for the Arts in Maryville. The multicultural Brazilian troupe is made up of young dancers from the slums of Rio de Janeiro, under the direction of a classically trained ballet choreographer named Sonia Destri Lie.

It’s not something most American cities expect to see every year, or ever.

Last month, they made their New York debut at Manhattan’s Joyce Theater, an auditorium devoted to dance on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. The New York Times witnesses a whole lot of modern dance, and isn’t that easily impressed. But dance critic Brian Seibert wrote, in the March 5 issue, “Companhia Urbana de Dança is so wonderful that it seems miraculous.”

So how does our metro area, which has never been famous as a mecca of dance, earn the honor of a visit from this high-profile troupe? It has a lot to do with a 45-year-old organization that has maintained a low-key presence in Knoxville, and the person of one Linda Parris Bailey.

Carpetbag Theatre still carries a whiff of the counterculture. The African-American troupe’s plays once seemed like guerrilla theater. Bailey has been in charge of Carpetbag since the ’70s, surely giving her some kind of seniority among the leadership of Knoxville’s nonprofits, but she keeps moving, physically and artistically, adapting to changing demands and currents and tastes. And, frankly, contending with a changing, and generally shrinking, budget. Though she finds inspirations and gigs seemingly all over the Western hemisphere, she keeps Carpetbag’s main office in the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Broadway. She met us across the street at the new coffee shop known as K Brew to talk about this latest project.

Carpetbag is still mounting productions intended to empower minority groups at home, as they always did, especially within the African-American community. Many of the projects Carpetbag takes on are so narrowly targeted that the mainstream doesn’t hear much about them, like therapeutic dramatic programs for victims of AIDS or post-traumatic stress disorder. She’s been working with youth at the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina. Lately they’ve been involved in “digital storytelling,” helping people who have experienced some trauma or triumph to record their own narratives, to put them on a website or a CD. Often, Bailey says, the fact that they’re making a personal breakthrough shows on their face.

And many of her projects take flight in other cities, like Nashville or Orlando. But every once in a while she makes contact with someone remarkable who helps her mount a big production back home. “Each moment, we’re doing important work,” she says. “But we’re not finding ways to talk about it.” Funding is not what it used to be, she admits. But every once in a while, she’s able to work some deals to land something pretty astonishing.

Bailey travels a lot, in arts programs that foster cultural exchange, like the National Performance Network, which funds the Performing Americas Campaign and is a chief underwriter of this Dança week-long residency here. One of a team of curators who visit festivals and studios in Latin America and the Caribbean, Bailey has been to Cuba recently, and will soon be on her way to Haiti for another drama project. It was a recent trip to Brazil that connected her with a remarkable dance troupe.

“It was interesting to see that these Brazilian dancers had embraced the form of hip-hop,” she says. Hip-hop—a broad term that incorporates rap, DJing, and breakdancing—emerged in the cities of the United States in the last 40 years. “It’s an American form, an African-American form, but it’s interesting to see how people around the world have embraced that and made it their own.” Similar conditions of urban poverty foster an interest in the same sorts of art.

Bailey got a full view of life in Rio de Janeiro, which isn’t all micro-bikinis, bossa nova, and Carnival. Favela is a prettier term for ghetto, and describes the high-density slums that ring the city. “Having been to what they call favelas, I can see it,” Bailey says. “Poor people will develop and cultivate a culture that speaks to them, and make it their own.”

Bailey found it inspiring just to be in the presence of the youthful creative energy of these athletic dancers from the streets. “Just being in the room with them—they’re powerful, they’re engaging, their music is hypnotic,” she says. “And they’re lovely to look at. No, really, they’re sweet. It’s nice just being with them.”

This weekend’s performance is a rare event for the Knoxville area, and maybe it’s not something the dancers themselves will sneeze at. The Ronald and Linda McNutt Theatre, the largest room in the still-new Clayton Center, holds 1,196—which makes it more than twice as big, in seating capacity, as the Joyce Theatre in New York, where Dança premiered its show last month.

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