Hip-hop that's danced with an accent that isn't Brooklyn or even South Philly hit Washington last week. Compagnie Kafig, based near Lyon, France, made its American debut Saturday evening at Lisner Auditorium to an appreciative and participatory crowd with a one-work program, "Recital."
Born on the inner-city streets and schoolyards of New York in the 1970s, hip-hop has entered mainstream popular culture a quarter-century later. "Recital," a bit less than an hour long, appropriates typical hip-hop moves: breaking, pop-and-lock, head and back spins, the moonwalk, acrobatics and top-rocking footwork. But with the often elaborate production values of French dance theater, Compagnie Kafig has created a piece that unifies the pluralism of popular culture with the high art of the concert stage. And it's also just plain fun.
The seven men of Kafig, most of French Algerian descent, bring a European and North African sensibility to this African American popular art. Cleanshaven with close-cropped hair and wearing trim sportswear rather than baggy jeans and oversize polo shirts, the members of the group have attained a measure of camaraderie not regularly seen in competitive hip-hop circles. Hip-hop is most interesting and exciting when the dancers take to the floor with whole-body and acrobatic tricks; Compagnie Kafig does that cleanly and easily. The men enjoy unison work and play off one another in a brotherly fashion with little animosity. Instead of stony glares and gangsta poses, they smile broadly while spinning, popping, sliding and flipping.
"Recital" tweaks the decorum and mannerisms of the classical concert stage, but it takes a while to get where the company is going. Folded-up music stands initially indicate that this won't be a typical hip-hop affair. After the dancers enter with violin cases that open to project light and shadows onto the black backdrop, they dance with the instruments, the bows becoming--for a moment--soft-shoe-style canes. Exquisite lighting by Yoann Tivoli and scenery by Yassine Dahmani along with astute artistic direction by one of the dancers, Mourad Merzouki, unified the evening into a fulfilling theatrical experience.
Composer Franck Louise's score relies on the percussive beat, of course, but elements of Middle Eastern and classical music meander into his highly danceable composition, with oud and violin both adding their distinctive sounds. Louise appears onstage as a ghostly conductor in a hood and ill-fitting tuxedo; toward the end of the work he uses an electronic talk box to distort vocal sounds, recalling hip-hop's scratching technique.
Hip-hop is prized in this country for its virtuosity: A dancer pirouetting on the top of his head, flip-flopping across the stage, spinning on his back and ending with a series of scissorlike rotating splits is breathtaking, and Compagnie Kafig does all that with precision, grace and strength. But it also has no compunction about adding its tongue-in-cheek tweak to the poses of American hip-hop practitioners.