Ahighlight of “Agwa,” one of the two pieces Compagnie Käfig will perform at the Citi Shubert Theatre starting this Friday, is the sight of Brazilian dancer Sorriso back-flipping his way across the stage through a minefield of plastic cups on the floor. It’s a stunt, but it’s also a statement from an artistic director who has a lot to say — about water, which is the subject of “Agwa,” and running, which is the subject of “Correria,” and much else. Of French-Algerian origin, Mourad Merzouki was born in Lyon, and he founded Compagnie Käfig there in 1996. But for the program he’s bringing to the Shubert, under the auspices of the Celebrity Series, he’s using 11 male hip-hop dancers who were originally from Rio de Janeiro’s Companhia Urbana de Dança.
This kind of cross-fertilization is typical of Merzouki. From the age of 7, he was training to be a circus performer, but he was also practicing martial arts. And in the streets he was doing hip-hop. Eventually dancing and then choreographing won out, but circus and martial-arts elements are palpable in the choreography.
Then there’s the name of his company, which means, both in Arabic and in German, something like “cage.” “ ‘Käfig,’ ” he explains, “was the title of my first work, which was about confinement, boundaries.” He says he wanted to show that dance could take flight and go beyond its boundaries. “The name corresponds to my global artistic process,” he points out, “and thus it’s become the name of my company. At the same time, it’s an opposite, and tied to my own history.”
He was introduced to Companhia Urbana de Dança, he says, “by Guy Darmet, who was the director of the Maison de la Danse de Lyon, and who lives in both Brazil and France. He knew these dancers well, and he asked me to create a project for them. I was very interested in the idea, which allowed me to discover Brazil. I was seduced by the generosity of the dancers, by their energy, and by the mania for life that they expressed in their dancing.” The elements of samba and capoeira present in “Correria” and “Agwa,” he says, were not part of the concept of the choreography; they arose from the natural body language of the dancers.
One of those dancers, Diego Alves, explains that Companhia Urbana de Dança traveled to Lyon in 2006 and met Merzouki there, and the choreographer was so impressed by their show that he created “Agwa” for the dancers in 2008. “Correria” followed in 2010. Alves, who’s from the Santa Teresa region of Rio de Janeiro, got interested at age 9 when he saw someone windmilling at a school dance. His mother, he says, dreamed of his becoming a soccer star, but though he likes to watch soccer and play it for fun, his love is dancing. He took dance classes at university; now it’s his profession, and his mother is proud of him.
But Merzouki, he says, has provided a new dimension. “Before, we just danced to the hip-hop music. Mourad showed us how you can dance with the techniques of hip-hop but without the music, with different feelings and different intentions. He showed that you can play a violin melody to a popping style or a b-boy style. That did a lot to change my mind and my dance.”
The music for “Correria” and “Agwa” is indeed surprisingly lyrical, with strains of opera and Russian folk. “I chose the music precisely because it had nothing to do with hip-hop,” Merzouki acknowledges. “That’s just the sort of thing that interests me. I have always wanted to confront my dance with completely different worlds.”
‘Mourad [Merzouki] showed us how you can dance with the techniques of hip-hop but without the music, with different feelings and different intentions.’
The two pieces themselves have conceptual elements. At one point in “Agwa,” the dancers have to pick their way through those hundreds of plastic cups, some of which they drink from. Later, they appear in plastic raincoats. In “Correria,” they bring out wooden batons with shoes on them, to create the illusion of many feet. Merzouki says that these pieces “were inspired by themes that touch us all. The idea was to leave behind the clichés and the postcard notions of Brazil. ‘Correria’ takes its inspiration from the society in which we live, this world of urgency, which is even more urgent in Brazil. ‘Agwa’ is linked to the problem of water, to issues of the environment and global warming — and also because hip-hop dancers drink a lot of water!”
These aren’t the only works Merzouki has created for the Brazilian dancers. “In 2012,” he says, “we developed a new piece called ‘Käfig Brasil,’ where I invited four other choreographers to share the piece with the dancers.” He adds that this year he’ll be developing on a new creation called “Pixel” that will incorporate digital technology.
Right now, though, it’s the “Correria” and “Agwa” program that’s being presented all over the world. Merzouki expresses the hope that these two dances will bring hip-hop fans, people from the suburbs, and people from the inner city together around the same unifying energy. “That’s how I perceive this program and my work in general,” he says. “Dance is a universal language!”
Clarification: An earlier version of this story may have suggested an ongoing collaborative relationship between Compagnie Käfig and Brazil’s Companhia Urbana de Dança. Dancers who were originally from the Brazilian company performed with Compagnie Käfig, but the two troupes have no ongoing collaboration.