'Compagnie Käfig' draws inspiration from France to Brazil

By Gillian Jakab, Community & Culture Editor
Published February 13, 2014

What happens when you put 11 male dancers from Rio de Janeiro under the direction of a French-Algerian choreographer and send them around the world?

Compagnie Käfig

Feb. 14 and 15 at 8 pm
Power Center
Starting from $22 ($10 student rush tickets)

Compagnie Käfig’s choreographer and artistic director, Mourad Merzouki, started exploring the movement arts at a young age. Beginning with circus performance and martial arts training at age 7, Merzouki has a thrilling movement vocabulary. As a teenager, he gravitated towards the hip-hop trend in the streets and in the early ‘90s started dancing with, and choreographing for, his friends.

Soon he began to create shows. His first project was called “Käfig,” a title that carries a meaning close to “cage” in both German and Arabic. Merzouki is intrigued by the concept of confinement and the ways in which dance can transcend the boundaries we create and connect people. It became the name and mission of the company: “Compagnie Käfig.”

For the first decade, the company’s dancers were mostly French and of Algerian descent like Merzouki. The group you will see dancing at the Power Center this Friday and Saturday, however, comes from an entirely different part of the world.

Merzouki met 11 Brazilian dancers touring with their company — Urbana de Dança — at the Lyon Biennial dance festival in 2006. He was so impressed by their vibrant energy that Merzouki wanted to get to know them and their personal stories from the favelas (Brazilian shanty towns). A few years later, Merzouki created the dance “Agwa” specifically for the 11 dancers, and they became part of the company.

One of these young performers from Rio de Janeiro, Diego Alves dos Santos, speaks of his natural love for dance and the role it plays in his everyday life.

“I started dancing at nine years old. But as a child it was just for fun. I liked dance too much,” Alves dos Santos said. “My mom’s dream was for me to be a soccer player, because in Brazil there’s such a fan(base) for soccer. But I didn’t like soccer very much; I liked to see and play it sometimes, but for me — for my life, my real love is dance. So I danced for my mom all the time. I’m still dancing today. And my mom loves my job.”

Compagnie Käfig combines the communal ritual of street dance — found at the origins of both the Brazilian dance form Capoeira and the African tradition of hip-hip — with the deliberate choreographic choices of dance presented on a stage.

“When you’re dancing just for fun in the street you can be more open — your mind opens more because you don’t have the responsibility. Nothing’s wrong; everything is right,” Alves dos Santos said. “But when you dance on a stage it’s beautiful too, because you can show your best dance, your best part to the people … People come up to you after the show and say, ‘I’ve never seen that!’ Sometimes I see people crying because my dancing has touched them. Those things for me don’t have a price.”

Merzouki’s choreography draws inspiration from Brazilian culture and mixes it with a palette of break-dancing, b-boying, acrobatics and martial arts.

“He began working with how (the Brazilian dancers) moved and really used that as a starting point to create the choreography,” said Camille Gillet, the company’s communications and press relations officer, as well as Merzouki’s translator. “They were really rooted in capoeira, samba — all the Brazilian styles of movement and they’ve integrated that into hip-hop.”

Pulling from dance traditions around the world, Merzouki makes it hard to categorize the company’s genre. He blends together a variety of deeply-rooted and historic styles until the movement is something both familiar and entirely new.

“It hasn’t been easy, because there is still a language barrier,” Gillet said. “Mourad doesn’t speak Portuguese — now some of (the dancers) speak more French and English so it’s started to be easier, but at first dance was really here to connect them together. Mourad used their own vocabulary, their own way of moving, to start creating something for them and that’s how it worked. That’s real proof that dance can be universal.”

Using dance as a lingua franca, Compagnie Käfig’s performances can communicate with people around the world. Touring four, five or six months at a time the dancers are constantly engaging in a global dialogue.

“The great thing about the company is that I do my dance with my friends and I show it in so many countries around the world,” Alves dos Santos said. “I have the opportunity to meet new people, great hip-hop dancers and train in great places. It’s so fun because before the company I saw things (around the world) only on Youtube or heard about them from some friends, but today I can see these things with the company because I travel to, for example, the United States and I get to know the great b-boys and famous dancers.”

Compagnie Käfig is sharing two pieces with us here in Ann Arbor as part of UMS’s winter season. The first, “Agwa” is athletic and exuberant; the dancers backflip between plastic cups of water around the stage. Focusing on water, a vital force, the dance is not specified by culture and instead becomes a unifying experience. The second piece, Correria, meaning “running,” is less celebratory but equally as elemental. It aims to hone in on the chaos and frantic nature of our everyday lives — with movement quite beyond the everyday.

The separate international and cultural influences are seen clearly within Merzouki’s choreographic devices. But the combinations of these dance and movement traditions from around the world, paired with core human themes, create something beyond identification. Matching hip-hop choreography with lyrical music, or spontaneous street dance with conceptual compositions, he asks the audience to reimagine.

“(Merzouki) really wants to show that 11 Brazilian dancers choreographed by a French artist can totally work and the show can have a strong impact wherever it is: in Asia, in Australia — we’ve been everywhere with this show really,” Gillet said. “The message is really positive everywhere. It shows that hip-hop dance can be on stage — it’s not only in the streets. The physical aspect … works with every culture. It really shows that dance can be universal and it’s here to break the limits and the boundaries.”