Meany Center for the Performing Arts
Compagnie Käfig: “Pixel”
George Meany Hall, University of Washington
November 18, 2018
Reviewed by Sharon Cumberland
Choreography: Mourad Merzouki
Digital production: Adrien Mondot and Claire Berdainne
Music Design: Armand Amar
The audience at Many Hall went crazy for Compagnie Käfig, a Franco-Brazillian hip-hop dance group. In a 70 minute program entitled “Pixel” the eleven member troupe treated the audience to a full demonstration of the hip-hop dance vocabulary, plus some circus-style acts including an in-line skater, a contortionist, and an expert on the Cyr Wheel—a super-sized hula hoop that a person uses as if their body were the spokes of a giant bicycle wheel. The most fascinating element in the program for me was the interactive videos that contextualized the dancer’s movements. The effect was so mysterious that as I left the theater I heard people wondering if the sheets of light that flew and scattered through out the dances were projections, props, or some kind of electronic setting. Were the dancers really pushing through curtains of light “pixels” or were they miming to a pre-programed pattern? I still don’t know—but the effect was intriguing to watch and impossible to describe.
It was good that Compagnie Käfig had a brilliant visual dimension because the rest of the program was fairly conventional. The hip-hop repertoire in general is very limited compared to most contemporary dance forms. After you’ve been wowed by the startling spins and movements developed in variations on popping, locking, and break dancing there’s not much more there. While it’s great to see a dancer spinning around on the top of his head, or standing on one arm while twisting his legs into a pretzel, how many times can you see that in one performance without wondering what it actually means? Most forms of choreography are arrangements of people in patterns in order to convey feelings (in abstract dance) or stories (in narrative dance). Hip-hop conveys strong feelings—amazement, excitement, machismo, competitiveness—but lacks both range and nuance. There have been many efforts to give hip-hop a wider audience through more conventional genres in order to reach a wider audience—the Broadway musical Hamilton is the most successful—but a little hip-hop goes a long way. For me, it didn’t quite go the 70 minutes.
Don’t get me wrong—I love this approach to art: if you don’t like what’s on offer, or if you don’t have access to the artsy-fartsy world (to use a refined expression), then you make up your own dances or music or paintings. Hip-hop is a street invention that has been the staple of generations of people who either had no access or had no interest in older traditions and so made up their own. I’ll never forget the first time I saw someone do the turtle on a collapsed cardboard box on a back street in Brooklyn—I didn’t believe what I was seeing was humanly possible until I actually saw it. And how many of you readers remember the first time you saw Michael Jackson do the moonwalk? Magical, astonishing, unforgettable—it triggers a whole range of excitement. But after excitement, what is there? Compagnie Käfig did the whole thing really well, and my guess is that the average attendee at Meany Hall hadn’t seen these amazing moves before, and so were thrilled and delighted. (They are also one of the most warm and welcoming audiences in the Seattle arts world).
Compagnie Käfig’s introduction of circus movement was also an interesting effort to introduce variation into the essential sameness of the dances. The spinning of the Cyr wheel emulates and develops the downrock moves of breakdancing by setting up a parallel universe of spinning. The female contortionist—though repetitive in her one skill of bending backwards and walking like a crab—paralleled the freeze-frame attitudinal posing of hip hop dance-offs. But the problem of complexity—of expressing the emotional range of human feeling, and of constructing nuanced gestures that communicate those feelings—has not yet been solved by this form of dance. Hip hop choreographers may have no interest in solving it, but until they do, or until they find a way of appropriating movements that go beyond individual showing off—it will be less interesting than the best of ballet and contemporary dance.
I applaud Mourad Merzouki and especially Adrien M/Claire B for their innovations, and hope that they will go even further in the direction of finding “the new” in street dancing. But it’s the choreography that needs to develop—not just the arts that surround the choreography. The dancers themselves were amazing, but they executed a predictable set of movements in an excellent way. They weren’t able to tell us anything new about the human condition or lift the veil and show us the sublime—things that the best choreographers achieve because of their inventive use of large and highly developed dance vocabularies.
It’s the job of Meany Center for the Arts to bring us everything that’s happening in dance—and they do a great job. I’m glad they brought Compagnie Käfig to Seattle and I hope they continue to search for the best companies in every dance form. I also hope that there’s some hip-hop dance troupe out there that’s figuring out how to extend the range of the form beyond the spectacular.