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Review

From the favelas of Rio, hip hop as high art Add to ...

Mourad Merzouki has made it his life’s ambition to transform hip-hop dance into a mainstream art form. The French choreographer’s success is manifested in his acclaimed Compagnie Käfig and its worldwide reputation for innovative choreography. The French troupe first toured to Canada in 2004 and earned rave reviews and adoring audiences. They now include Brazilian dancers in their company.

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The Biennale de la Danse de Lyon is one of the most prestigious dance festivals in the world. Lyon also happens to be Merzouki’s hometown. For the 2008 festival, the choreographer invited 11 dancers – in their teens and early 20s, from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro – to create a work. The young men have been touring ever since, becoming, as it were, a second Compagnie Käfig.

The work Agwa, which Merzouki and the dancers made for Lyon in 2008 – and which caused a real sensation – is on the Canadian program. The dancers also perform Correria, a creation from 2010.

Merzouki’s secret to rendering hip hop into high art involves creating a solid context for the dance style. Entrances and exits become important and are carefully crafted, as are lighting effects. Video is used in key moments; props are cleverly included. The works are closely choreographed, giving them a sense of polish and refinement.

The choreographer also surrounds hip hop with other dance forms, such as the samba and bossa nova, and martial arts, including Brazilian capoeira. And then there are the choreographic surprises, including some very inventive partnering carried out by the men. The scores are a pastiche of music – and fit each section of the dance to perfection: Hip hop’s showy tricks are only one element of a Compagnie Käfig show.

Agwa means water, and this dance is a tribute to that life-preserving element. When the curtain opens, the stage is festooned with towers of plastic cups. (In fact, it can take a little while to figure out what the towers are made of if you are sitting at the back of the theatre.) The men dance around these towers to shifting beats of music until they suddenly knock them over with a bang. The lighting is such that the fallen cups glisten on the stage like ice floes or glass shards.

What follows is one of the best coups de théâtre that I’ve seen in a very long time. The spotlight shines on one dancer, leaving the rest of the stage in total darkness. He moves rhythmically to the music, showing off his nimble footwork, his multidirectional knees, his deft use of gestures, his undulating torso. It’s a great presentation of urban street dance. And then the full stage lights come on.

The audience gasps: While their colleague has been holding us enthralled with his solo, the other dancers have been crawling on the floor in the darkness, setting up the plastic cups, now filled with water, into neat rows running from the lip to the back of the stage. It’s a stupendous visual moment.

These cups are then manipulated in many ways: The dancers pour water from one cup to the next; they join empty cups together to become one long plastic snake, sensuously moving through the air. One adventurous dancer even does back flips, landing between the rows, a fantastic feat in itself. Agwa is a stunning duet for dance and props.

The choreography of Correria – the tile means “running” – attempts to capture the flow of daily life. The tone of the piece is loose and easy, as the men run from position to position, showing off their prowess as dancers in solos, duets, trios and more.

The most spectacular moment involves a video-projected figure on a screen who runs and, as he does so, develops more legs. A live dancer running in front of him has to keep up to his pace. To the side, the rest of the dancers are on their backs, their elevated feet running in the air – except there are too many legs for the people. The next vignette involves a dance with those false legs, which look like oversize golf clubs.

In the final analysis, the young men are charming, the dances are eye candy, the choreography is clever. Compagnie Käfig puts on a very likeable show.

Correria and Agwa

  • Compagnie Käfig
  • At the Burlington Performing Arts Centre
  • In Burlington, Ont., on Thursday

Compagnie Käfig tours to Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre, May 2 to 5; and Banff, Alta.’s Eric Harvie Theatr on May 12.

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