Uncaged: A Q&A with choreographer Mourad Merzouki

The all-male Compagnie Kafig's "Correria/Agwa" will be performed this weekend at the TD Arena.

michel cavalca

In 2002, young dancers from the shantytowns of Brazil who had been discovered by a French choreographer, took to the Spoleto stage combining a mix of salsa, hip-hop and native capoeira movements into their choreography.

Mourad Merzouki, who has Algerian roots, started the all-male dance group several years earlier. It has since gone on to tour the world. At Spoleto again to perform for the first time in more than 10 years, the group is presenting a new production, “Correria/Agwa.”

In an email interview, Merzouki, the artistic director of Compagnie Kafig, discussed his dance background, his take on combining modern and traditional styles and his impression of the company he started.

Q: What do you remember the most about your last performance in Charleston?

A: We performed the show Dix Versions, I had a really good experience there.

Q: What made you write “Correria/Agwa”?

A: I wanted to tell a story on a universal theme, that means a lot to every people in every country. For Agwa, I wanted to work on a project which was not only linked to what we already know about Brazil, the favelas, etc. Water and running were very interesting to me because they concern dancers and also the rest of the world. In today’s society, we need to run, and water is a vital element.

Q: You started working in a circus and then became a hip-hop dancer. What are the similarities between circus and dance?

A: That is right, I first started with circus. I was an acrobat and I had a passion for performing arts. Hip-hop dance allowed me to bring both together. I also had a strong desire to share and introduce this form of art to the public.

Q: What does hip-hop have that other arts don’t?

A: Hip-hop dance is particularly interesting because it managed to shift from the streets to the stages, without being locked in one or the other. Both styles are developing and are complementary to each other, they still exchange a lot and dialogue together. For me, these two forms of expression are really different but equally important as sources of creativity, and I am still creating for both. In this way, hip-hop is very different from other dance traditions.

Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of mixing different kinds of dancing and working with people with a variety of cultural backgrounds?

A: The advantages are that dance is a universal language, therefore we do not need words to understand each others. As far as dance is concerned, I only see advantages! Sometimes it becomes more complicated when we get into logistics, but I always find it interesting.

Q: What about the movements of capoeira urged you to include that type of dance in your routines?

A: In this piece, I did not particularly want to integrate capoeira or specific movements, I used the dancers’ vocabulary as a starting point, and, of course, we can felt some capoeira influences. But there are many other influences.

Q: First circus, then hip-hop, then samba, then capoeira. What’s next?

A: My approach is still to bring many different styles and artistic disciplines into hip-hop. I try to add circus, martial arts, visual arts and live music in most of my pieces. There are still martial arts aspects in street dance, it’s all connected. I am always imagining creations with an accent on openness to the world. I just ended a project with Taiwan, but it’s only the beginning. I hope I could have new projects with other countries, such as Japan, etc. I keep working on opening and sharing my way of dancing — hip-hop — to other styles and other cultures.

Q: Do you think the Brazilian dancers in the group have a sense of nationalism performing capoeira?

A: These dancers are very open-minded, curious of the rest of the world, and open-minded dancers. They don’t wonder about nationalism, on the contrary they’re eager to discover the world and they are very generous. Touring the world like they do is a wonderful and unique experience, and they are grateful for that.

Q: What types of cultural influences do you see that style of dance having not only in its country of origin, but also in the places the group has toured?

A: My work is deeply influenced by the artists I meet through my travels and the tours. But once the piece is created, it doesn’t change much, I try to stay as close as possible to the initial work.

Q: How was the experience of working with people who lived in the favelas?

A: I have been introduced to Brazilian dancers by Guy Darmet, who used to be the director of the Maison de la Danse in Lyon and lives between France and Brazil. He knew these dancers very well and as he has been following me for more than 20 years, he asked me to create a piece for them. These young dancers, mostly from Rio’s favelas, were dancing to express themselves, to exist, to survive ... the rhythm and the passion is really present within them. It really fascinated me and I decided to create the piece “Agwa” for them. When I first met these dancers, I really took their vocabulary as a starting point; I took their movements to create the piece. I also gave them “homework” and then my job was to connect the pieces and refine the whole choreography. For them, it is a very special experience because it totally changed their approach to dance. As they were initially dancing in the streets, they now became real professional dancers.

Q: Why “Kafig”? What does it mean?

A: In 1989, with a group of friends and dancers, we created the Company “Accrorap,” among them was Kader Attou, who is now the director of the Centre Choregraphique National of La Rochelle in France. After creating our piece “Kafig” in 1996, I wanted to put together my own project, more personal. This piece gave the name to my new company, Kafig which means “cage” in German and Arabic (in relation to the dancers’ backgrounds): the theme of this piece was about being locked up. We chose this theme because at the beginning, hip-hop was often locked up in one style and one specific representation. The point was to deliver the dance from this “cage,” to push it out of its boundaries.

Q: What are the characteristics of a performance made by Compagnie Kafig?

A: In my pieces, I try to tell stories on universal themes, and topics that mean a lot to every people in every countries. I don’t necessarily want to deliver a particular message through all my creations. For example in my last piece, “Yo Gee Ti” that I made with five contemporary dancers from Taiwan and five hip-hop dancers from France, I worked on the theme of fiber, knitting and building fabrics as if we were “sewing the bodies,” but the point is really to share some poetry and emotions through the piece. The objective is also to spread this form of dance, to make it accessible and also to raise awareness in all audiences. I am always imagining creations with an accent on openness to the world. I keep working on opening and sharing my way of dancing, hip-hop, to other styles and other cultures.

Q: How do you go about choosing the music that’s used to choreograph the dances?

A: I choose music that inspires me, that calls to my mind and reminds me of interesting topics. Then I choose according to what I want to tell. In these pieces, I did not want to choose music that would match too much to their styles, I wanted to push out the boundaries through music and dance, by using different styles together.

Q: What should the audience of the Spoleto Festival 2013 expect from Compagnie Kafig’s return performance?

A: I hope they will spend a great moment of dance with the Brazilian troupe, and that this piece will bring them inspiration, motivation and the willingness to open themselves to the rest of the world.

Lucia Camargo Rojas and Briana Prevost are Goldring Arts Journalists from Syracuse University.