Duke Performances has brought a young dance company from Rio de Janeiro to Duke this week for a series of campus and public events, culminating with this weekend’s performances. Ever since having seen a different group of young Brazilian dancers earlier this year, I’d been actively looking forward to an exciting performance by Companhia Urbana de Dança. The dancers come not from backgrounds of privilege and conservatory training, but from the favelas of Rio, where in some cases, to dance well is to survive. The troupe, led by artistic director Sonia Destri Lie, has turned their hip-hop street dancing into more-or-less choreographed pieces for the dance concert stage, and they have appeared in a number of art dance halls and festivals in the US and Europe. The footage from their back-to-back appearances at Jacob’s Pillow in 2013 and 2014 looked fantastic.

Perhaps the dancers were tired from their class teaching, panel speaking, and open public rehearsal, but for whatever reason, the first of the two works danced on Nov. 7 in Reynolds Theater was lackluster. ID:Entidades, from 2009, had nothing fresh about it, choreographically, and without sizzling dancing, it failed to engage. Not that the dancing was bad – it just wasn’t hot. The dancers seemed to be going through the motions using their considerable skill sets, but without heart or humor. The piece opens with the dancers in dark clothes sitting in a line upstage in near-darkness; eventually they get up and move, without music, but the lighting is such that when they stand, their lower bodies remain in darkness, while their upper bodies can be dimly seen in the crisscrossed side lighting. Theatrical smoke adds murk to the atmosphere of aggression and competition. After a while, the lighting changes to allow more visibility, but the dancing and the music continue to come in uneven bursts, and nothing ever leads anywhere. This may be “keeping it real” in street argot, but on the stage it comes off as choppy and without drama.

After a long intermission, the troupe took the stage again for Na Pista (2012). Both the dance and dancers were considerably livelier than in the earlier work, and there’s a bit more of a story line, although again, the dance is essentially a series of competitions. This time there is humor, however, and high spirits. The setting for the dance appears to be a social club where everyone knows everyone, and starts off with a teasing game of musical chairs, which is reprised in a delightful way at the end. In between, the dancers show off individually, and do some nice ensemble work as well. It brought to mind Donald McKayle‘s great 1951 dance Games, in which the children/dancers “do the dozens,” although in Na Pista there is no shattering event or significant social message. Still, when the young, lithe dancers of Companhia Urbana de Dança turn up the juice and really strut their stuff, it makes for happy watching, if not memorable choreography.

This program will be repeated November 8 in the same venue. See the sidebar for details.