In a weeklong festival of street-dance performances and competitions being held at Kanagawa Arts Theatre (KAAT) in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, starting from July 30, one dance group perhaps stands out in particular for its emotionally charged performances.
As part of Compagnie Käfig, a dance company founded by French hip-hop dance choreographer Mourad Merzouki, a group of Brazilian dancers will be performing two works — “Agwa” (from the word “agua” meaning “water” in Portuguese) and “Correria” (“Run”) — at the KAAT Street Dance Festival, Japan’s first major festival of its type to be held at a public theater. Unlike most professional dancers, these Brazilian hip-hop dancers, who are all in their teens and 20s, are self-taught — and all of them grew up in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
“Their life was very hard, and so their raison d’être was to dance,” said Merzouki in a recent interview, commenting on the group’s background. “I think because the dancers grew up in a severe environment in which dance became their outlet, their performances are particularly powerful and appealing.”
Merzouki, who choreographed the two works, first considered using Brazilian dancers in 2006, after Guy Darmet, the artistic director of the Biennale de la Danse de Lyon, in France, told him about the talented dancers he had seen during trips to Brazil.
Inspired by this, Merzouki held auditions for Brazilian dancers to join his Compagnie Käfig troupe. The following year, he traveled back and forth between France and Brazil to choreograph and direct their performances. “Agwa” became their debut show at the 2008 Biennale de la Danse de Lyon, and since then the group has gained popularity, performing in many theaters in France, including Theatre National de Chaillot, the national theater in Paris.
“Everyone can live thanks to water,” Merzouki said when explaining why he chose “Agwa” to be the group’s first performance. “I wanted a universal theme, not something stereotypical of Brazilian culture, like samba or soccer.”
For “Agwa,” the dancers use transparent plastic cups, sometimes filled with water, which are stacked, danced around, held by the dancers and even thrown across the stage. They make ideal props and “enable the dancers to move fluently,” Merzouki said.
In one breathtaking part of the performance, a dancer deftly somersaults across 11 rows of water-filled-cups, without spilling a single drop, while the other dancers step and turn to a fast-paced percussion track. In another scene, the dancers twist and sway stacks of cups just as they twist and sway themselves in time to the beat.
Like the universal notion of “Agwa,” the running theme of “Correria” is, as Merzouki explained, something that everyone at some point has to do in everyday life. And like “Agwa,” the choreography involves acrobatic and dynamic movements, showing off not only the artistic talents but also the physical strength of the dancers.
Some of this imaginative choreography is rooted in Merzouki’s own background. Merzouki learned acrobatics at a circus school in Lyon when he was 7-year-old and began hip-hop dancing at age 15 after he saw it for the first time on a television program.
“I found similarities in acrobatics and hip-hop dance,” he said, and that made him feel familiar with the street dance, which is said to have been created by African-Americans in the United States in the1970s before spreading among immigrants in France during the ’80s.
According to Merzouki, street dance has taken off in France in the few last decades, and has now gained the status of a performing art.
In 1996, by which time he had become a leading hip-hop dancer in France, Merzouki established his company Compagnie Käfig (“Käfig” means “birdcage” in Arabic) and since then, he has held more than 1,000 shows in 250 cities around the world.
Compagnie Käfig’s performances are on August 5, 6 and 7 at the Kanagawa Arts Theatre, which is a 5-minute-walk from Nihon Odori Station on the Minatomirai Line. Tickets are priced from ¥2,000 to ¥5,000. For more information, visit www.kaatsdf.com (Japanese only).