Dance Review: Compagnie Käfig — Virtuoso Hip-Hop Goes State of the Art

By Charles Giuliano

While the experience is new and otherworldly, it was daunting to realize that it had taken over a decade for Compagnie Käfig’s exercise in cutting-edge art and technology to reach the hinterland of the Pillow.

Compagnie Käfig in “Pixel” at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival 2023. Photo: Christopher Duggan

What happens, 50 years after its inception, when hip-hop, an art form spawned by African American, Latino, and Caribbean communities, achieves global acceptance? The approach continues to evolve as indigenous music and dance as its street-cred merges with intercontinental traditions and values. The fertile confluence — indigenous American roots embraced by distant geographic and cultural sources — morphs into something entirely new and different.

That kind of innovation is present in the feature length “Pixel” by the Lyons, France-based Compagnie Käfig, which was performed at Jacob’s Pillow during the final week of the festival. The performance conflated familiar hip-hop virtuoso movements with state-of-the-art, interactive digital projections by Adrien Mondat and Claire Bardainne. The nuanced music by Armand Amar combined synth and drum tracks with violin, piano, vocals, viola, synthesizer, mix, and sound design. The piece was choreographed in 2014, by the French-Algerian hip-hop artist Mourad Merzouki.

When he was seven, Merzouki began to study martial arts and circus acts. At 15 he was introduced to hip-hop. All of these elements are evident in the artistry of “käfig” which means “cage” in Arabic and German. Founded in 1996, Compagnie Käfig came to the Pillow in 2012; I covered that sensational performance, their second since 2001.

Compagnie Käfig in “Pixel” at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival 2023. Photo: Christopher Duggan

In a preshow talk, Pillow artistic director Pamela Tatge explained that she had long wanted to present “Pixel,” the company’s signature work. But, given its technical specifications and demands, it only became possible in the now renovated and upgraded Ted Shawn Theatre. She worked with other venues to invite the company, and that helped launch a tour that included a visit to the Pillow.

The curtain parted to reveal a dark stage. A pulsing beat accompanied understated solemn music as a frieze of men, and one woman (Nina Van der Pyl), progressed on a line slowly across the stage. Individuals broke out, then reformed. Subdued yellow lighting (Yoanna Tivoli assisted by Nicolas Faucheux) revealed the generic “street clothes” designed by Pascale Robin (assisted by Marie Grammatico).

There was the tension of anticipation — something was about to happen. When individuals cut loose with brief moves they would stop, then fall back into the opening formation. After this prologue, change in positioning occurred slowly.

There were six small lights beaming up at the back of the stage below a scrim. Resembling hot springs at the bottom of the ocean, they revealed streams of pixels simulating bubbles. These streams became more aggressive and filled the scrim. Then something sensational happened — and that previewed the dance’s major trope.

Compagnie Käfig in “Pixel” at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival 2023. Photo: Christopher Duggan.

One individual, followed by three, used their arm movements to deflect and redirect the pixels. This launched an ever-evolving panoply of visual effects, which included simulations of constellations in the night sky. At times the pixels would plummet downward. In another spectacular move, a “wall” of pixels rotated 360 degrees as the audience gasped in wonder. While the experience was new and otherworldly, it was daunting to realize that it had taken over a decade for this exercise in cutting-edge art and technology to reach the hinterland of the Pillow.

The performance’s movements were deeply rooted in hip-hop, layered with elements of gymnastics, circus-inspired contortions, and capoeira, the dancelike martial art of Brazil. Significantly, in its 2012 Pillow performance Compagnie Käfig was composed of Brazilian autodidact dancers trained by Merzouki. The current company is more diverse.

The digital projections formed patterns and grids on the floor, which isolated individuals amid the volatile dancing patterns. The tradition of hip-hop is rooted in fierce competition, with each dancer striving to develop individual moves and style. Each of the Käfig’s dancers was given a spotlit featured moment. Merzouki’s genius is to harness the eclectic talents of the troupe’s virtuosos into a single compelling dance. The whole is greater than its stunning parts. Overall, the result is a more nuanced, refined, and sophisticated version of American vernacular dance. The familiar moves are there, but the context is more theatrical, sophisticated, and complex.

Nina Van del Pyl of Compagnie Käfig in “Pixel” at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival 2023. Photo: Jamie Kraus

Coordinated with the interactive projection and ever-changing music are a number of stunts and vignettes. A Cyr wheel — a human-sized metal circle — is introduced, into which Julien Seijo inserts himself. Every possible permutation with the device is explored, and these are echoed and enhanced by pixel projections. A new level is reached with the introduction of another circle and the arrival of online skater Ibrahima “Ibou” Mboup. As in a circus, the performers execute tricks, one of which entails releasing the rings as they continue to spin. That movement is synched with the projections: the tour de force presentation stuns the audience as large rotating digital circles on the scrim imitate the rotation of the metal rings.

“Pixel”’s wild card is the contortionist Nina Van der Pyl. Everything about the single woman in the company is distinctive. In hip-hop we marvel at the ability of dancers to isolate parts of their bodies. Drawing on the circus tradition, she takes this skill to another level, twisting and turning into pretzel-like configurations. She slowly bent back until her head touched the floor. While crouched on the floor, supported by her hands, a leg snakes out past her head. Seemingly floating in space, her body is parallel to the ground.

In a later sequence she partnered with Sabri “Mucho” Colin. Through a series of impossibly contorted moves, they evoke a courtship of alien creatures. While she slowly becomes a pretzel, he breaks off in a supercharged frenzy. It is the kind of exotic mating ritual that would benefit from clarifying narration by David Attenborough.

For its curtain calls, the company formed a line from which each dancer stepped forward to perform a brief reprise. The audience stomped its approval. Let’s hope it’s not another decade until the Pillow welcomes this spectacular company again.

Charles Giuliano has just published Annisquam: Pip and Me Coming of Age.

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