Compagnie Käfig at Jacob’s Pillow

Final Company in Residence, 2023 Season

By: - Aug 29, 2023

Compagnie Käfig at Jacob's Pillow, August 23 to 27
Artistic Direction & Choreography: Mourad Merzouki
Concept: Mourad Merzouki & Adrien M and Claire B
Digital Production:  Adrien Mondot and Claire Bardainne
Musical Design: Armand Amar

For PIXEL, by Compagnie Käfig, ten male hip hop dancers, French style, a woman contortionist, a roller-skater, small robots carrying tiny lights, and a huge metal hoop shared and interacted on stage with projections from a high-tech music, sound and video system. They were the last company of the 2023 Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. I remember when a young Bernd Kracke, today President of the Hessen State University of Art and Design, brought the first American group of five Hip Hop dancers, on a shoe string budget, to an art/dance festival in Frankfurt, Germany. That was nearly 50 years ago. Since then, Hip Hop has danced and evolved around the world.

The French style, often smoother in movements is here presented to music by Armand Amar, who is a greatly recognized composer with French-Moroccan background. Surprisingly, PIXEL was choreographed and presented by Compagnie Käfig  – Mourad Merzouki in France in 2014.  And the company has appeared with other 'awe struck' performances, in a work titled Akwa, at Jacob's Pillow in 2012/13. Pamela Tatge, Artistic and Executive Director, wanted to present PIXEL to the Pillow audience, when it became possible to mount this work because of the new  sound and video system. Merzouki’s PIXEL, this-90-minutes-long piece, finally came here, after it has already been introduced to 30 countries in nearly ten years.

Käfig, meaning cage in Arabic and German, was Merzouki’s first choreography, hence the name, now 27 years and thirty some works ago in Lyon. And it clearly defies his totally open style to many influences, collaborations and inspirations over the decades. He holds an enormous influence over Hip Hop, dance in general and cultural expressions in France and Europe. So, he is now preparing a work for the 2024 Paris Olympics, combining dance and sports. The company will travel next to The Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C. and then to Nashville OZ Festival, in Nashville, TN, to finish their American tour with PIXEL. BRAVO!

Well, that is an early accolade in this review for a truly visual feast of dance with technology in a festive even circus like atmosphere. Early on during this performance a dancer or two were slowly showered with a few, then a series of bubbles along the wall moving with them back and forth, perhaps on the floor as well. Then, more dancers appeared and disappeared, some were only half-visible or slowly faded out. All to the sound, which reminded me in the beginning of, perhaps early gramophone music adding bubbles, hundreds, even thousands of them. Of course, the music changed in style and intensity with only one part of heavy percussion and drums, which is the hallmark of Hip Hop in the US. 

The bubbles also turned into columns along the wall and the dancers moved in almost fearful, then again with confident steps, jumps and moments in and out of sight. Their costumes were tight long pants in various colors with short or long arm shirts in corresponding colors, just fine to underplay the otherwise sometimes overwhelming visual effects.

Moving along, the company performed all Hip Hop moves from twisting to jerking to strutting; isolation to freeze and breakin’. They stepped alone or together, egging each-other on for more variations or more daring moves and jumps. Then, the only woman in the group appeared, slowly performing a total 'bridge walk' across the stage. It means that she walked on hands and feet(s) while her head is in an upside-down position, her body up in the air, hence, the bridge walk. Oh, yes, she also performed other circus-like feats of a professional contortionist like adding to the bridge by bringing her head in front of her arms, now staying still. In contortionist terminology: back bending pose, a variation of a chest stand face frame.  More humane moments happened when she interacted with another dancer, while they assisted each other with their tasks. Nina Van der Pyl is just exquisite!**

As the performance continued the stage floor would be flooded with long white lines, the dancers would appear with light stripes on their bodies, shadows from the floor. As they moved across the stage, hip hop steps interrupted the lines and he or they would find themselves standing in a black island or two or three across the stage. Leaving the stage, more dancers entering in succession all in an interplay with sounds and more and more complex visual material.

The ‘rain dance’ provided special fun for the audience: One, two, three, then four dancers appeared on stage with tall see-through umbrellas moving with the bubble-curtain back and forth. Then, apparently, a strong wind would increase and chase the dancers around the stage holding fiercely onto umbrellas; finally pushing themselves and all the bubbles off stage!

A performer with a hoop entered the stage and a couple of large circles appeared on the wall towards the last third of the work. Other dancers followed and interacted with the hoop that was tall enough so that one dancer, inside the round metal frame, could direct swings and movements, alone or in unison with other men. Then, the tallest dancer on roller skates, Ibrahima "Ibou" Mboup, zipped along or circled a group many times in various formations. At some point, the skater and hoop-dancer were nearly intimate and sensual inside the hoop-circle. What a sweet human expression...

As Van der Pyl could move her body in a 360-degree way by joint dislocations, the dancers were able to perform snake-like arm, leg, and body movements to a very high degree and to a point of much repetition. In Hip Hop terminology they were waving and tutting. Merzouki draws in this work on several contemporary dance styles and karate moves to express human reaction and interaction: embracing technology in totality.

Finally, while dancers were forming black holes in the floor grids earlier, now they were moving the visuals into black streams and islands, attempting to remain 'on land' as they were acting, stepping and hopping on stage.

Then, the most impressive finale: In the center, a black tunnel was surrounded by three-dimensional thick brightly illuminated walls to sound waves that I do not recall. Oh yes, the dancers came out from the black slowly,  appearing center stage and disappeared slowly back into the 'tunnel' until there was only one, then until there was none!

A most joyous end presented the entire company to thundering applause on and on; then, of course, some dancers showed off, once more, their most elaborate Hip Hop moves. And, finally they pointed to the wall where in large letters "Thank you Jacob's Pillow" appeared. Yes, Thank you, indeed!


**P.S.: I accidentally overheard snippets of a conversation, while moving slowly out of the theater with the crowd, that the contortionist, Nina Van der Pyl, is one year away from receiving a PhD in astrophysics. And she travels currently with her 16 months old daughter. That is a woman of my ideal. BRAVO!