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Victor Lucas, Cool Cleveland  |  March 09, 2015

REVIEW: Compagnie Kafig @DANCECleveland Giant Steps for Hip-Hop

We've been waiting for a long time for hip-hop dancing - formerly known as break dance, b-boy, and street dance - to take the next step. "Why can't hip-hop dance mean more?" we asked ourselves. When we saw Compagnie Kafig last Saturday, we realized that we'd asked the wrong question.

Compagnie Kafig presents an unlikely international hybrid. Artistic Director Mourad Merzouki was born in Lyon, France of North African parents. He began studying circus arts and martial arts as a child. At the age of 15 he discovered hip-hop and soon began directing a number of artistic projects that blended hip-hop with other forms.

In 2006, age 33, he saw the all-male Brazilian group Companhia Urbana de Danca at a festival in Lyon and apparently recruited them on the spot. Since then, Compagnie Kafig has been touring internationally including a prestigious stop at Kennedy Center and many, many one night stands at colleges and universities in the US.

Compagnie Kafig's concert at the Ohio Theater was divided into two 30-minute works, Correria - Running - and Agwa - Water.

So, picture us as the stage lights slowly came up on Correria. Did we insert our earplugs against over-amplified percussion? Tense our muscles and curl our lips against vitriolic raps?

No, dear reader. As the stage lights slowly came up on Correria we gradually discerned two guys lying on their backs, bicycling their legs in the air. Soon they were joined by two more guys running around them in a circle. There was soft, rhythmic chanting, rhythmic percussion of hands slapping the floor, chimes and other recorded sounds. Soon we were watching two guys center stage performing some fairly conventional breaking and capoeira moves, slightly enlivened by the rhythmic counterpoint of two more guys running around them.

Subsequent scenes were characterized by alternating, contrasting tempos. Run fast / pause. Dance fast / run in slow motion. From time to time there's some fairly spectacular breaking or acrobatics but it's an accent or punctuation in contrast to a steady background hum of fast / slow. An eclectic musical play list, thankfully including little synthetic drum machine and no rap vocals, provided accompaniment. If you didn't like one musical accompaniment, a different one was just around the bend.

So as Correria ended we looked at each other and agreed that Compagnie Kafig was so much more inventive and good-humored than we expected; the dance plays with the announced theme, running, but it's not about "meaning" so much as it is an interesting and entertaining succession of scenes. Rather than try to tell a story, it is a thorough exploration of the theme in a variety of moods and paces. There's some break dancing but Compagnie Kafig wisely refrains from trying to be continuously spectacular.

Agwa takes a similar approach by mixing fairly spectacular stunts with whimsical interludes. A spectacular series of back handsprings and a finale including head spins is punctuated by interludes where the dancers pour water from plastic cup to plastic cup. One dancer pours water and we hear the sound of water amplified; he drinks, smacks his lips, and exits yammering happily in Portuguese. Various arrangements of the plastic cups are lit in surprising and beautiful ways achieving magical effects with such ingenious economy of means. Ordinary plastic cups transformed!

In Agwa the head spins were the first of many finales. "Bravo!" shouted the audience but there was more. Then "Yaay!" and another standing ovation but it still wasn't over. Finally, the dancers were all lying collected in a row downstage, light focused on their hands as they each danced with 2 fingers around their plastic glasses of water. They click their glasses together and drink ("Mmmm!") with a laugh.

So what's next in hip-hop? Hip-hop began as an urban, contemporary manifestation of African-American culture and struggled to make the transition from the street to the stage. Then, like jazz music in the 1920s, hip-hop became international and transcended its African-American origins. Now hip-hop can include virtually everything and everyone; a French citizen with North African roots, a bunch of Brazilians who've perhaps never been in an American ghetto.

Compagnie Kafig has its share of critics, purists who want their hip-hop to remain old school, but we're relieved to find a hip-hop show without male braggadocio, without misogyny, without ear-splitting volume levels, and without ill-considered resentment. Here's to hip-hop performed with great good-humored choreographic invention and fun. Bring back Compagnie Kafig, DanceCleveland! We'll bet they can rock Playhouse Square on an annual basis.

Compagnie Kafig was presented by DanceCleveland at the Ohio Theatre on Saturday, March 7, 2015 with support from Nordson, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Ohio Arts Council.

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