BECKET — Anyone who thinks the notion that art can change lives is a cliché should spend a few minutes reading the dancer bios of the Brazilian hip-hop group Companhia Urbana de Dança, making its Jacob's Pillow debut this week. This company, some of whose dancers come from the infamous favelas of Rio de Janeiro, is a powerful argument for the necessity of arts education, accessibility, and of course, funding.
As a concert form, hip-hop occupies one of the youngest rungs on the centuries-old evolutionary ladder of theatrical dance, but it's been around long enough to drop the novelty-act status. Practitioners are still working out the perfect recipe: how much street, how much narrative, how much of other genres; how much, and what kind of music plays a role; how do other theatrical devices — lighting, costuming, props, scenic design — possibly add to the mix.
Artistic director and choreographer Sonia Destri Lie, perhaps herself trying to avoid clichés, uses classic hip-hop movements relatively sparingly. She thus presents Companhia Urbana as a contemporary dance group whose members happen to be b-boys (and b-girl; there is one female performer, the excellent Jessica Nascimento, alongside seven strong, eclectic men). Destri's own background is in ballet and contemporary dance while her dancers have varying comfort zones and familiarity with these genres.
The two dances on the Pillow program are both heavy on solo moments, in this way most reflecting hip-hop's street form. In the 2008 "ID: Entidades," dancers take turns stalking, insouciantly casually, into and then away from the spotlight, framed by the others looking on. This ritual retains much of the exciting immediacy of the individual testing balance and grappling with gravity. What it inevitably loses from the audience's distance is made up for by the very theatrics of the proscenium setting.
Although "ID" is an abstract primer on the eight dancers' physically — and temperamentally — individual styles, Renato Machado's dusky lighting design is evocative, a smoldering underworld of shadows. When we first discover the dancers, they are side-lighted sparsely so we see only their faces; then, when one of them cartwheels, only legs, as if they are eerily floating in space. Rodrigo Marçal's score is a canny hodgepodge that both helps us find the dance's emotional pulse and demonstrates some of the cast's sophisticated musicality, as they respond to various levels of subtlety.
The threads of "ID," alas, are weakened by meandering. The sections begin to pile up, the tautness of the brisk, witty entrances and exits slackens with repetitiveness. Destri seems lost on the path to an ending.
"Chapa Quente," from 2010, though likewise composed of a loosely knit compilation of motifs and mini-scenes, maintains its compelling pulse and ends at just the right moment: with dancer and company cofounder Luiz Tiago Sousa Laurindo dizzily (metaphorically drunk with too much spinning) stumbling offstage. It's a comically apt finish to this enigmatic dance that, in its sketch of a potentially wild party, builds scenes of thickening tension. In another dance, these scenes might erupt into violence, but here they dissipate into individual jiving.
Like "ID," "Chapa Quente," peppered with familiar hip-hopisms, is augmented with modern-lite falls and rolls, and memorably accented with Destri's strikingly articulate arm movements. The dancers circle, windmill, slice, and angle their arms into now creaturely, now geometric shapes, as if they are miming a complex story. To echo the Martha Graham truism, these bodies, these divergent physiognomies and personalities, don't lie: Bridging the theatrical divide, they dance without reservation, and tell us everything we need to know.