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Flash Reviews 2, 5-16: Kafig Times Two
Two Reviews, in Chicago and New York, of "Dix Versions"

By Jessica Swoyer
and Vanessa Manko
Copyright 2002 Jessica Swoyer and Vanessa Manko

CHICAGO -- Compagnie Kafig rocked the house in late April with its evening-length "Dix Versions" at the Dance Center of Columbia College. The title suggests ten versions of collective choreography and/or ten diversions using an eclectic wardrobe of dance styles, including '80s brea-dancing, hip-hop, funk, contact, and capoiera. All ten vignettes, showcased in a 75-minute excursion on the versions, explored different body types (short/tall, big and small) while pushing the definition and understanding of hip-hop within the dance world as an art form.

A Euro-version of the Beastie Boys in their mechanic-like coverall body suits and toe-worn Addidas sneakers, this French connection ignited the house immediately, the vibe heightening with anticipated applause as the lights dimmed. Andalusian guitar spiced up western funk music created by Franck II Louise. And the integration of video imagery with a light smoky haze throughout the theater pumped the whole house into a music-video clubbing extravaganza. With these elements Compagnie Kafig had taken the American break-dance of the MTV '80s and turned it into a European disco-hall delicacy.

The French hip-hop dance scene saw its conception in the early eighties. With the many American hip-hop troupes then touring Europe with the b-boy culture, a strong influence was quickly adopted. Particularly hip-hop, as well as rap and graffiti art, was found to be a vehicle for self-expression. A voice for the European minority, hip-hop artists confronted their harsh social conditions -- including welfare, crime and racism -- through their dance.

Although one Chicago critic noted the lack of social or political commentary in "Dix Versions," as with most French rap groups Kafig's message is pacifistic and subtle. The lyrics of Kafig's music are in French and, like the work's title, suggest it plays with the ideas of diversity -- acceptance of every color of the rainbow, and every shape and size -- but also asks, "So what is our job in this sacred universe?" Knowing the words in advance or as "Dix Versions" is performed is unnecessary, though, as the French adds ambiance to the work; however one should not dismiss the gesture to include the lyrics' translation in the program.

It is evident that Compagnie Kafig has a mission. Lead by artistic director Mourad Merzouki, these dancers ask us to re-evaluate the role of hip-hop in our current environment. When some may see dance purely as a triviality in everyday life, there is no doubt the dancers of Compagnie Kafig know their role in this world and their job in this "sacred universe."

"Dix Versions" does not depend on complex spatial arrangements, or overly inventive props, but it does have an awareness of these tools and with incredible lighting uses them most effectively, complementing the choreography.

Breaking up the stage and simultaneously serving as an on-stage "wing," three floor-to-ceiling white cloths are diagonally staggered across the floor. Multi-functional effects are created from this simple arrangement. The ability to hide a number of dancers at a time behind the cloths allows for fun surprise exchanges of dancers. Video projection of the dancers on the cloths creates duets and trios with only one live body on stage. In one instance, the company's sole female performer begins her movement as a projection on the cloth, and where her image moves off the cloth she picks up finishing the movement in person. Throughout the ten petite-works we are taken for a journey dipping in and out of a virtual world.

The fast pace and high energy of the dancers is tempered at times, allowing us to take in the actual artistry and beauty of break-dance. Head spins -- which are just plain impressive alone -- make for an upside-down whirling dervish fest when performed by all ten dancers together. The control of the spin that is displayed is similar to that of a figure skater's: there is no apparent spotting, and once they really get moving by torquing the body in consecutive sections it becomes, "Look Ma, no hands!"

A particularly stunning moment is a quartet halfway through the work. Three of the dancers kneel left to right in a row, dancing an upper body adagio, while the fourth just spins away on his head, the whole stage dark except for the hallway of light they move in. I didn't realize before now that this kind of dance could be breathtaking and, well, elegant.

Funnier vignettes include a trio with the dancer whose role in the company is to be the token "big guy" and two others. Interacting with each other and overtly acknowledging the audience they moon walk, belly roll, and isolate in places nobody thought isolateable while calling out, "Comment ca va?" and "Yeah baby." The ability of these dancers to move each section of their bodies in different directions creates crazy contortions and in one case the illusion of a floating head.

The sustained lowering of the body to the floor that break-dancing requires appears, on Kafig, effortless. And every dancer dropping to the floor and back up again as if they were all two feet tall made me re-think what exactly is "center of gravity." Each dancer has his or her own signature move and rather endearingly enjoys sharing it with the audience. We may have thought we were having fun, but with cheeky school boy grins it was evident the dancers were having even more of a ball.

Funky moments involve large suspended oval lanterns that the dancers place over their heads. Once again video of the dancers -- this time of their faces -- is projected onto the lanterns, creating a caricature effect. Their normal-sized bodies now appear tiny and disproportioned, sticking out from underneath their magnified heads. And not only can this group move but they can make music too. In another section three dancers are hooked up to voice boxes, making awesome electronic sounds while jamming to their own improvised noise.

While some modern dance companies -- Doug Elkins for example -- incorporate street dance in their choreographic style, it is often diluted with more abstract movement. Compagnie Kafig, on the other hand, is the evolution of street dance and has the endurance to prove it. A standing ovation for this group was not enough. After an encore, the company invited the audience to go for a spin on stage, and a few brave souls took up the invitation, rather well I might add for mid-western folk. So next time Kafig is in your neck of the woods, go on, get your Devo suit and check it.

-- Jessica Swoyer

NEW YORK -- To say Compagnie Kafig's "Dix Versions," being presented by Dance Theater Workshop at the Joyce this week, is a crowd pleaser is an understatement. Seen Tuesday, this Lyon-based company's mix of hip-hop, break dance, acrobatics, and visual effects roused the mid-week audience to exuberant applause. Compagnie Kafig's style is derived directly from street-dancing, and, without losing the spontaneity that is integral to this dance form, the company has managed to bring this unconventional dance genre to the concert stage in what makes for a truly entertaining evening, one filled with virtuosity, humor, and a dynamic stage energy.

"Dix Versions," in particular, is a light-hearted, infectious entertaining series of dance interludes. Each of the ten sections incorporates visual effects or geometrical stage props that become an extension of the choreography. In futuristic, almost StarTrek-like jumpsuits of bland grays and whites, dancers isolate and undulate; one moment they seem to have no joints, fluidly rippling, bending, and cajoling their bodies, and the next, they were all angles, articulating staccato isolations as if they are robotic mannequins. At some points the stage becomes a trampoline; dancers jump from mid-air to the floor and into and out of handstands or back-flips. Amazingly, they always recover gracefully and unscathed.

The trance music in the score is clearly an integral part of the dancing, spurring the performers onwards with every riff and beat.

Three stage-length panels of cloth are draped vertically down the stage as the evening opens. It's a tentative beginning, with dancers breakiing and moving in and around the panels with ease and dexterity. They execute one-armed handstands and shoulder roles with a natural ease. Film images are projected on the panels, with live dancers performing alongside celluloid ones. Other physical and visual tricks abound throughout the work. Perhaps one of the most startling technical feats is the ability of the dancers to move their bodies in intensified isolation, to such a degree that it's as if a strobe light is reflected on them in a dark room.

The minute, lightning-quick movements or pulses of arm, shoulder, or neck flickers through the body is simply unreal.

In order to import this sort of dance into a theatrical atmosphere, visual effects and stage props have been added. The piece moves from the rather straightforward, pure dance sections to segments which present a more complex use of the stage space. Here, the dancers experiment with the same break-dance and hip-hop moves by dancing on large geometrical blocks and blow-up shapes. They perform cartwheels over a large circular disk, or back-flip off a square box. Ultimately, the addition of such props allows for the performers to make use of the stage in creative ways. At one point, four dancers, each hiding either their legs or torsos behind the stage props, merge into what looks like one large dancer with amazingly long legs. One seemingly superfluous section, in which the props were used rather confusedly, included three dancers, with what I can only think to call oxygen tubes attached to their faces, performing hip hop. Certainly if not all ten, then this one of the "Dix Versions" fell flat. While this troupe is made up mostly of petite, compact, amazingly strong dancers, there is one exception: Julio "Clown" Santiago, whose large frame challenges the traditional physique of a dancer. This dancer moves with the same dexterity and fluidity as the smaller dancer he often performs with. He is the clown or trickster in the work, sneaking onto the stage, scaring the other dancers, and isolating not only his neck and shoulders, but also his stomach.

An array of hip-hop, shoulder-spinning and full-out acrobatics concludes the work. It is an energetic and lively finale. One dancer in particular stupefies the viewer when, after spinning on his head, he raises his legs slowly and steadily into the air while still turning round and round. While some sections were far from perfect, the piece as a whole deserves approval, for it brings the dancing of the streets and onto the concert stage without losing the essence of the form. In short, the spontaneity and camaraderie is still present and rubs off on the audience. Other dancers included Kareem Beddaoudia, Kader Belmoktar, Outhay Bouttavong, Bintou Dembele, Najib Guerfi, Chad Mehala, artistic Mourad Merzouki and Hafid Sour.

--Vanessa Manko

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