From the favelas of Brazil

By Robin J Miller, March 2015

Dance Victoria brings Compagnie Käfig to the Royal Theatre, March 13 and 14.

Compagnie Käfig is the second all-male dance company to arrive in Victoria as part of Dance Victoria’s 2014-2015 season. But do not expect this company to resemble the UK’s BalletBoyz in any way except for their explosive maleness. Unlike the (for the most part) classically trained Boyz, the 11 men of Compagnie Käfig come directly from the favelas—the notorious slums of Rio de Janeiro. And it shows.

Their movement is fiery and raw and full of personality: Each dancer is an individual with a story to tell. Yet they also work as a collective to move beyond mere physical virtuosity to present pieces with true artistic and emotional depth, and that is the work of the company’s French/Algerian artistic director and primary choreographer, Mourad Merzouki.

Merzouki formed Compagnie Käfig in France in 1996 (Käfig means “cage” in both German and Arabic) in an attempt to transform hip hop into something that belongs on a concert stage, that can hold its own with the best contemporary dance forms. Rave reviews from around the world soon followed, but the choreographer decided he wanted to push the boundaries even farther. A colleague suggested Merzouki create a piece for a group of young men from Rio, then in their teens and early twenties, steeped in capoeira, a 400-year-old Brazilian martial art that has a definite kinship with hip hop in its speed, acrobatics and intense athleticism. 

“These young dancers were dancing to express themselves, to exist, to survive,” says Merzouki. “The rhythm and the passion is really present within them. It fascinated me and I decided to create the piece Agwa for them in 2008. I took their vocabulary as a starting point and based my creation on their movements. I also gave them ‘homework’ so they could collaborate with me, and then my job was to connect the pieces and refine the whole choreography. For them, it has been a very special experience because it totally changed their approach to dance. They were initially dancing in the streets, and now they are real professional dancers.”

Since then, Merzouki—who uses different dancers for different projects—has set three works on the Brazilians, including most recently the 60-minute Käfig Brasil, which Dance Victoria Executive Producer Stephen White chose for the company’s Victoria debut. “This piece spoke to me more strongly than the other two. I feel it captures the flavour of Brazil, the sense I have of that country. It’s a pastiche of ideas about Brazil, danced by Brazilians, fusing elements of samba and capoeira, hip hop and acrobatics, and I think it’s completely fresh, completely new and significant.”

White did not set out to present a season with such a male focus; it simply happened. “This is an international season, with companies from Canada, the US, Britain, and France/Brazil, that is focused on exclusive engagements—we were the only Canadian stop for the BalletBoyz, for example—or Victoria premières,” he says. “The process of putting a season together is a bit like a Rubic’s cube. There are negotiations with the opera and the symphony on what dates we can book the Royal. Then I’ve got to work my mental Rolodex to figure out who would fit our market, when they are touring, do they want to tour here.” The result this year is a season that spans modern dance, classical as well as contemporary ballet (Utah’s Ballet West arrives in April), and the unique urban/Brazilian fusion we can expect from Compagnie Käfig.

The piece Victoria will see, says Merzouki, “shows that dance does not have any boundaries; it is universal. I think this is an important message to convey. I aim at passing on the roots of hip hop, with its energy and positivity, while going beyond them, surprising the audience with the poetry and emotions this dance can arouse. I want to bypass the clichés about this discipline and show that, today, it is totally legitimate to have hip hop on theatre stages. I want my choreographies to wake up the audience, to provoke its curiosity, to bring new sensations, to give way to imagination.”

Says White, “It’s my personal mandate to introduce Victoria to the best dance practice I can, regardless of genre.” That mandate has meant some low attendance numbers at times for the more challenging contemporary repertoire, but now seems to be paying off. Audiences for both the BalletBoyz and Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Nutcracker hit record highs this past fall, and White is now starting to hear consistently from people who once thought they preferred purely classical works, particularly storybook ballet, that they love the variety Dance Victoria brings in. “We sort of sneak in the new and different into the subscription series,” White says, “knowing that it may speak more immediately to a younger demographic, but we’re finding that older audience members really appreciate the unusual too, provided the quality is there.”

From my perch as a slightly jaded dance writer and critic who has seen enough Swan Lake’s to last a lifetime, I always look forward to the new and different. At the same time, however, I have seen a number of attempts to raise street dance to main stage status crash and burn: Its dance vocabulary and range of expression is simply too limited. But I have great hopes for Compagnie Käfig, which The Boston Globe just weeks ago said “blazed across the stage” of the Schubert Theater. My recommendation: Don’t miss it.

Robin J. Miller writes for national and international arts publications, and for business and government clients across Canada.