To spot decent hip-hop dancers in Washington, you could hit the U Street Music Hall at 2 a.m. on a Saturday or an after-school dance studio in Columbia Heights. What’s difficult to find in D.C. — or anywhere in America — is an amazing ensemble of street dancers performing on a more formal stage. For that, it seems we have to import dancers from France, by way of Brazil.
The celebrated Franco-Brazilian Compagnie Kafig made its Washington debut Friday at the Kennedy Center. It may be Carnival season, but this all-male company appears to dance for the sake of joy and excess energy all year. Founded in 1996 by Mourad Merzouki, a French national of North African descent, the company pivoted to another hemisphere in 2006, after Merzouki saw a Brazilian troupe perform at a dance festival in Lyon, France. Thanks to generous support from one of France’s 19 national choreography centers, Merzouki conscripted some of those dancers into his company, and now he is on a 14-city North American tour performing two works influenced by Brazilian urban dance and capoeira (a martial art) brilliantly melded into a cohesive party package.
“Correria/Agwa” (“Running/Water”) opens with spotlights on three sets of churning, sneaker-clad feet. This schoolyard-antic aesthetic turns up again in a section that finds the shorter dancers loping around their taller counterparts, until one by one, the bigger guys pick up more petite partners, who continue running in place. Capoeira is often practiced with long staffs, and in a clever twist, Merzouki has his men lie on their backs pumping not only their legs, but an extra set of prosthetic feet on sticks.
The well-chosen music ranges from the popular samba tune “Magalenha” to an aria from Mozart’s unfinished opera “The Goose of Cairo,” performed with a North African backbeat and semitone strings. During the latter, a leggy dancer sings along as he delivers a wacky, elastic-limbed solo. The ensemble choreography and partnering are fantastic, but Merzouki works solos into both pieces. “Agwa” featured 110 (plastic) glasses of water and dozens of b-boy moves, including a pop-and-lock solo performed by a guy wearing a giant, clear plastic poncho. Each dancer had a distinct personality, and aside from unifying and smoothing some of the upper body movements, Merzouki makes no attempt to turn these men into modern dancers. That’s genius. Judging by the cheers from the crowd, many people in the audience had never seen a head spin, a back flip or a shoulder roll on the Kennedy Center stage. Maybe it was the first time. May it not be the last.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.