by Donald Hutera
The word kafig, choreographer Mourad Merzouki explains, carries almost the same meaning in Arabic and German: it refers to a cage. Merzouki used the word as the title of the first piece he made in 1996, for six dancers. He also took it as the name of his company, a group of contemporary hip hop- based dancers whose animal energy, street-savvy instincts and theatrical intelligence flatten any barriers between spectator and performer. In Merzouki’s case,‘kafig’ equals liberation.
Merzouki, who will be 32 this year, is of French-Algerian origin. He is an engaging and sturdily-built man with a thin beard, a closely-shaven head and a pleasant smile. We met last summer in Amsterdam where Compagnie Kafig’s fizzing hour-long performance, the punningly-titled Corps est Graphique, earned a standing ovation from its audience at the handsome Stadsschouwburg theatre during the Julidans festival.
From humble beginnings to touring the world’s stages, there is a touch of rags-to-riches about Merzouki’s life and career. He and seven siblings grew up in a working-class suburb of the southern city of Lyon. ‘I started training in circus when I was very young,’ he says. ‘Seven years old. It was my destiny. My father wanted me to do martial arts, so I did that too till I was eighteen.’ Merzouki’s particular field was karate. But he was also drawn to the dance form all his friends were interested in………hip hop.
‘It was easier to say to my father, “Yes, I’m going to do karate” than to tell him that I want to do dance,’ Merzouki says. ‘In my culture nobody dances. But if I dance, I think I will never die. It’s as important as that. And now my father is happy for me, too.
‘Circus and hip hop are both very acrobatic arts,’ Merzouki continues. ‘For me they have a very good energy.’ The trick was how to combine the two. He came up with a fifteen-minute show in which he juggled with fire while dancing. This fusion of styles was initially greeted with suspicion by hip hop purists. As Merzouki admits, ‘They thought what I was doing was crazy.’ Even a general public used to seeing a formulaic brand of hip hop on television might balk at such innovations. ‘In the mind of the audience there can be a barrier. Sometimes they want you to stay in a box.’
Merzouki’s turning point as a professional dance-maker was the mentorship of Guy Darmet, a Mourad MerzoukiFrenchman who steers both the Maison de la Danse and the Biennale de Danse in Lyon. Under Darmet’s guidance, Merzouki and his hip hop crew took their technique to a higher level.
Over time, Merzouki says, his hip hop and dance colleagues as well as the public have grown to understand his vision. He’s always searching for something new. For Kafig he feels free to create pieces of dance-theatre that might have a political edge, or refer to classical concert music. Or, as in Corps est Graphique, address gender stereotypes.
Kafig’s previous pieces were mostly performed by men. Set to the seductive and happy beats of a score by Merzouki’s brother As’n that melds Arabic, Indian and Spanish rhythms, Corps est Graphique instead takes an amused and amusing look at the differences between men and women. ‘It’s not a Romeo and Juliet kind of story,’ Merzouki says, ‘but has more to do with ironic caricature. Yet I also want to respect the different identities and movement vocabularies of men and women.’ The performance presents an original and stylised version of how men and women meet and behave together. It is also significant for giving women equal importance in a genre of popular culture, hip hop, that is, still dominated by often misogynistic men.
In many locations the company’s offiically scheduled performances are preceded, or accompanied, by workshops. This, Merzouki feels, is vital activity ‘because the dance is so young. We really like to go and meet the people who have an interest in this dance, and in our work. It’s one of the ways we can share our experiences, which is a fundamental question for the artistic development of hip hop. ‘What’s interesting in hip hop culture,’ he adds, ‘is to change negative energy to a positive energy, thanks to artistic expression. That’s what we’re doing in Kafig, day after day. For me, to put together or join onstage and in the different venues people from different origins, ages and cultures is the best way to make possible a meeting, or dialogue, between people.’
The next production Merzouki hopes to make will meld performers from circus, hip hop and theatre. ‘Maybe it’s my circus background,’ he says, ‘but I like a show when dance is mixed with many things.’ This cross-disciplinary approach reflects of his belief that hip hop must continue to broaden its possibilities. ‘I’m an artist,’ Merzouki says. ‘I don’t want just hip hop. If I do only that I will be boring a part of myself. If hip hop itself only stays in what it is, it will die.’ No chance of that happening as long as Kafig is allowed out of its cage.