Compagnie Käfig Thrills at Jacob’s Pillow
Photos by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow
What do you get when you cross a choreographer from Lyon trained in the circus and martial arts and experienced in hip hop with a group of street dancers who arose from the favelas of Rio De Janeiro? If the choreographer in question is Mourad Merzouki, artistic director of Compagnie Käfig, you get an evening of exhilarating, energetic, appealing, and clever dance that grabs your attention and holds it throughout a stunning display of what the body can do – particularly these eleven muscular, male bodies from Brazil.
If you have ever dismissed hip hop as lesser form of dance, undeserving of the concert hall stage, this is the program that will change your mind. Yes, there are the pyrotechnic handsprings, flips, inversions, arm balances, and headspins, along with the rhythmic popping, locking, and intensity that you expect from the genre. But these anticipated moves are presented within a context of sophisticated, surprising choreographic structure and winning warmth and humor in both of the evening’s two works. Lighting design by Yoann Tivoli; musical arrangements by AS’N; and stage design by Merzouki and Benjamin Lebreton also deserve recognition and plaudits for enhancing the performance.
The first piece, Correria, opens on a dark stage with a spotlight on three dancers on their backs, legs spinning in the air. The work is an exploration of running, and when other dancers circle the three in spotlight, they run like real people, not like dancers, with power and conviction. Throughout the piece the dancers run across the stage, run in place, run in space (held aloft in clever partnering), and run to the beat of other dancers lying on their stomachs and thumping out a rhythm in unison with their hands on the stage, or stomping it out with their feet – in one section, with extra feet, as a group of dancers use footed clubs to visually multiply their legs and astound the audience with their doubly fancy footwork.
The score aptly signals mood shifts and new vignettes, reaching its peak in one segment in which a single spotlit dancer busts his moves to a bit of opera overlaid with Brazilian beats. The piece ends with one of the more impishly charismatic dancers smiling slyly at the audience while he runs the fingers of one hand across the back of his other hand, a perfect tightly focused conclusion to a big dance.
Agwa begins on a stage set with cups stacked, seemingly at random – some low stacks, some high – which are then scattered as the dancers burst into movement. Then the magic occurs. As one dancer performs a solo, the others crawl across the floor in a line, magically gathering up the scattered cups while leaving behind 11 neat lines of cups, like some human landscape-grooming machine.
Then come multiple sequences of astounding movement in and around these arranged cups, with a tension arising from the ability of the dancers to control their swivels, flips, somersaults, and airborne barrel rolls without knocking a single cup out of its precise position. (This tension is all the more surprising since the audience knows the cups are plastic, not glass, yet we still hold our breath with every daredevil move.) In each row there is a cup of water, with a dramatic segment involving pouring the water from cup to cup. In the end, the dancers do get a much-deserved drink, but only after virtuosic displays of strength, surprising synchronization, and the loosest hips I’ve ever seen on the Pillow stage.
Receiving what may be the most enthusiastic applause – never mind a spontaneous standing ovation – that ever broke out at Jacob’s Pillow, the dancers of Compagnie Käfig could not stop dancing, giving round after round of curtain calls and solo displays of their individual skills. How refreshing to be able to sit back and simply enjoy dancers reveling in the rhythm and their physical prowess. It was a smart, engaging program that posed no intellectual, analytical demands on viewers, a crowd pleaser that never condescended or trespassed into the realm of vapid entertainment. —Bess Hochstein
Compagnie Käfig at Jacob’s Pillow
Ted Shawn Theatre
August 15 – 19 2012