4 Questions With Compagnie Käfig Artistic Director Mourad Merzouki
On Friday, April 24, and Saturday, April 25, St. Louis audiences will be treated to an electrifying performance by world-renowned Brazilian dance company, Compagnie Käfig at the Touhill Performing Arts Center. The all-male ensemble from Brazil is a hip-hop dance group intermixed with a fusion of samba, capoeira, Russian-influenced and contemporary dance.
Artistic Director Mourad Merzouki founded the group in 1996. A native of Lyon, France, Merzouki is experienced in martial arts and circus arts performance. With the collaboration of Merzouki and the 11 members of Compagnie Käfig, the company has transformed the language of hip-hop in their alternative dance style, grasping the attention of a diverse range of audiences globally.
This weekend, Compagnie Käfig will be performing two of their most well-known acts, “Correria” (“Running”) and “Agwa” (“Water”), which have performed 276 times in 146 cities in 17 countries to rave reviews. Merzouki took some time out of rehearsals to talk the company and its unique work with ALIVE.
ALIVE: Your background in circus performing and martial arts gives Compagnie Käfig a very unique twist on hip-hop and other forms of dance. What initially sparked the idea to combine everything into this collection of diverse dances?
MM: When I was a kid, I indeed went to circus school and then I got to practice martial arts. I discovered hip-hop culture at the age of 15 through several French artists and also the TV program “H.I.P.-H.O.P”, which had a big impact on French teenagers at that time. When I discovered hip-hop dance, I realized that through it, I could bring martial arts, circus and performing arts together.
From that day on, I have been trying to develop hip-hop choreography confronting it to other art forms. I am always imagining creations with an accent on openness to other styles and to the world. I always keep this state of mind in my creations, and thanks to it, I can bring a new dimension to hip-hop. That is why I called my company, “Käfig”, which means “cage” in German and Arabic. Hip-hop has been locked up into one style for a very long time, my work as an artist is to release this dance from its cage and push it out of its boundaries.
ALIVE: How often does Compagnie Käfig conjure up a new dance routine?
MM: It really depends on the encounters through the international tours, the opportunities of collaborations and specific requests by programming partners. I do new works at least every two years, and it often happens that I create two new works during the same year, as I did recently with “Pixel” and “7Steps” in 2014. Each of my new projects aims at opening hip-hop dance to other cultures and at sharing the essence of this dance with the widest audience.
Working with different dancers on almost each of my creations contributes in opening my approach: For example, I mixed hip-hop dancers and circus artists in “Pixel,” Taiwanese contemporary dancers and French hip-hop dancers in “Yo Gee Ti” and put a classical string quartet on stage with “Boxe Boxe,” etc. The collaboration with the 11 dancers of “Agwa,” created in 2008, has been such a wonderful human adventure that I created “Correria” for them in 2010 and then “Käfig Brasil” in 2012. I am really fascinated by the energy, the rhythm, the passion present within them.
ALIVE: What does an average day of rehearsing entail?
MM: When we work on a new production, we are rehearsing with the dancers from 9am to 6pm with a one-hour break for lunch. The day begins with a warm-up, generally led by my assistant. Then I give artistic directions to the dancers and work with them in little groups. That way I can focus on a duet or a solo while the others work together on group movements with my assistant, and so on during two or three months of creation.
During this whole time, we progressively add the set, lights and costumes. When the show is on tour, the dancers always do a rehearsal on stage on the day of the performance, in order to get used to the specific space of each theater and to fix the lights, sound and props with the technicians. After the rehearsal, I–or my assistant, if I cannot be there–give some comments to the dancers on what can be improved in the interpretation of the choreography.
ALIVE: The group has been around for such a long time and has been an incredible example of true talent for contemporary dance. What does the future hold for Compagnie Käfig?
MM: Hip-hop dance has evolved from the streets to the theaters and has proven wrong those who said it would never be more than a trend. Since 1996, Compagnie Käfig has toured in France and abroad with around 140 tour dates a year, and I am so glad my pieces get to gather so many different audiences, whatever the culture or the country.
Beyond this positive situation for the company, I think hip-hop dance still has a lot to prove in the future, a wider public to reach, a perpetual improvement of the artistic style, thanks to an opening to other cultures and disciplines. My concern for the future is making hip-hop dance evolve and renew itself without forgetting its roots. What is at stake here is not only thinking about the future, but also not to forget about the past.
Compagnie Käfig will be performing at the Touhill Performing Arts Center (One University Blvd.) on April 24 and 25. Tickets are available at touhill.org.