Eisenhower Theater, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC; February 28, 2014

Carmel Morgan

Compagnie Kafig in 'Correria'.  Photo © Michel Cavalca

Compagnie Kafig in ‘Correria’.
Photo © Michel Cavalca

I’m guessing I may have witnessed a first – a hip hop dance company on one of the Kennedy Center’s main stages. Compagnie Käfig, composed of Brazilian male dancers but led by French artistic director and choreographer Mourad Merzouki, definitely brought something less traditional to the programming schedule at Washington, DC’s sometimes stuffy Center. The dancers’ roots are in Rio De Janeiro’s favelas, and Merzouki was impressed by them at the Lyon Dance Biennial in 2006. The rest, as they say, is history. For the most part, the audience ate it up, giving the dancers generous applause and a standing ovation. A few patrons, however, like me, ended up disappointed. Compagnie Käfig’s performance, overall, I felt, delivered far more boy band bravado than actual artistry. Ironically, the dancers looked their best after the final piece when they let loose and danced elatedly in their own street battle styles.

The program features two pieces: “Correria” from 2010 and “Agwa” from 2008. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given Merzouki’s background in martial arts and circus arts, both evidenced showmanship of the sort you’d expect to see under a big tent. The choreography featured plenty of cute tricks. In “Correria,” the dancers riffed on the theme of running. They dashed in circles, jogged, pedaled their feet on their backs, percussively slapped their bodies and pumped their fists. Even their fingers took running steps. Some dancers threw their legs around a hand solidly planted on the floor as break dancers do. Others flipped themselves in the air like acrobats. There were headstands, too, and also healthy doses of humor. Dancers played around with extra legs – sticks like short ski poles with shoes attached.  Yet the casual atmosphere and lack of professional polish made the work come across as mere fun. Although charming, it was the kind of dancing I’d prefer to see at an outdoor festival.

While “Correrira” focused on the need to move, “Agwa” focused on the necessity of water. The dancers made copious use of dozens and dozens of clear plastic cups. They transferred water from cup to cup, and they imaginatively stacked the cups and arranged them in various ways, constructing towers and also crafting wobbly accordions like giant Slinky toys to hold between their hands. At one point, carefully placed rows of cups reminded me of the headstones at Arlington National Cemetery. The cups, in fact, starred in “Agwa” almost to the extent that the dancers did. They were incorporated well and were absolutely beautifully lit by Yoann Tivoli (lighting design) and Dominique Palabaud (control).

Compagnie Kafig in Agwa.  Photo © Michel Cavalca

Compagnie Kafig in ‘Agwa’.
Photo © Michel Cavalca

In “Agwa,” the dancers remained shirtless, which I’m sure pleased anyone who loves male eye candy. Even though many of the men were short in stature, they were all undeniably strong. One couldn’t help but admire their physiques, particularly their well defined abdominal muscles. One guy in a clear hooded rain poncho clowned about, and then others joined him. The clear rain gear (costume design by Angèle Mignot) looked almost like tutus when the men spun. As in “Correrira,” some dancers took solo turns, showing off their special skills. One guy twirled on the top of his head for longer than I’ve ever seen anyone do that, but I admit I’m not often around people who spin on top of their heads! The audience went wild for that.

In closing, I have to give a nod to DC’s local hip hop companies, like Culture Shock, who offer performances that for some reason I find more appealing, even though hip hop is really not my thing. Dance audiences in DC and the Kennedy Center staff should know that you don’t have to search for great hip hop talent abroad; you can find it easily in the District itself.