Dance Review: Compagnie Käfig — Arbitrary Exoticism

I get why Compagnie Käfig’s “Correria” and “Agwa” has been booked onto stages in 15 countries and counting. But the troupe’s polished athleticism comes at the sacrifice of hip hop dance’s precious anarchy.

Compagnie Käfig. Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. Choreography by Mourad Merzouki. Lighting design by Yoann Tivoli. At Citi Shubert Theatre, Boston, through Sunday afternoon.

This is the 2009 cast of Agwa

By Debra Cash

Lyon-based Mourad Merzouki, whose family roots are in Algeria, was a martial artist and circus acrobat early in his career: he used to juggle fire while dancing. To create Compagnie Käfig, he brought together eleven Brazilian dancers who are fluent in both the jousting pulses of capoeira and the slick commercial presentation of international hip hop. The young men in his current troupe are gifted performers and major hunks — scene after scene, they take a moment to convey “have you noticed I’ve taken my shirt off again?”

Merzouki’s confident direction brooks no challenge about where the audience should focus its attention. The dancers are up, they’re down, they’re center stage, they’re in the deftly deployed spotlight. Some of the men lie on their stomachs and drum on the floor with their palms. Runners invoke the perimeter of a roda, the capoeiristas’ circle of engagement, as a couple of guys balance in mirrored positions. On the floor and lifted off it, the men bicycle their legs furiously like gym members in a spin class where the vehicles are locked down.

Käfig translates to “cage” in both Arabic and German, and this troupe is indeed locked in. In Compagnie Käfig’s Correria/Agwa, being presented this weekend by the Celebrity Series, hip hop dance’s edges have been filed down. Its cultural sources in West African, Caribbean, and Brazilian dance forms have been pureed to indistinguishable machismo. The mixtape score, arranged by Merzouki’s brother AS’N and ranging from Arabic ney to techno-tarantella, communicates arbitrary exoticism.

Compagnie Kafig. Photo: Michel Cavalca

Compagnie Kafig. Photo: Michel Cavalca

During 2010’s Correria (Running) and the 2008 Agwa (Water) every swinging, top rocking ginga and somersault through the air is precisely calculated. This is effective when the impact depends on very specific illusions, such as the croquet mallet-like “extra” legs made of sticks furnished with shoes and knee-high socks that turn the men into clowning centipedes. It thrills when one or more of the dancers launches into a balance or handspring through a modest obstacle course of plastic cups without preparation.

But it also douses individual self-expression, which back in the day was hip hop dance’s most valuable payoff. Merzouki’s hip hop language isn’t adolescent “look what I just mastered” bravura; it’s the well-oiled ratcheting up of a trapeze aerialist’s risk-taking minus the popcorn and sawdust.

I get why Compagnie Käfig’s Correria/Agwa has been booked onto stages in 15 countries and counting. If you’ve got a teenage boy at home, the show would make a swell parent-and-young-man-together night out on the town. But Compagnie Käfig’s polished athleticism comes at the sacrifice of hip hop dance’s precious anarchy.

Debra Cash has reported, taught and lectured on dance, performing arts, design and cultural policy for print, broadcast and internet media. She regularly presents pre-concert talks, writes program notes and moderates events sponsored by World Music/CRASHarts and cultural venues throughout New England. A former Boston Globe and WBUR dance critic, she is a two-time winner of the Creative Arts Award for poetry from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and will return to the 2014 Bates Dance Festival as Scholar in Residence.

c Debra Cash 2014

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1 Comment

  1. Anne Tolbert on February 9, 2014 at 7:17 am

    Not sure why hip hop dancer’s have “precious anarchy” when so many of the moves as in break dancing are the same acrobatic ones and the competition aspect for me is less about self expression than who can do more head spins. Hip hop has many aspects, but I find popping and locking and pelvis grinding boring after a while…

    I didn’t see this Kafig performance, but did see what I think is the same program at Jacob’s Pillow in 2012 (and yes with a teen-age boy!). I enjoyed the dancer’s powerful acrobatism (less off putting for me than 32 pirouettes) but in the same category of look what I can do. It’s great to see men dance and I find nothing wrong with theatricality ( I would if the tricks were the same next time) – in fact I found the program really exciting and worth watching.

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