Dix Versions

Compagnie Kafig

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, April 25-27

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, April 12-28

A set designer of my acquaintance kept two signs above his drafting board. One said “If we can’t make art, let’s at least make craft” while the other read “Fuck art–let’s dance!” This little exchange encapsulates the difference between the concerts of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Compagnie Kafig, a hip-hop troupe based in Lyons, France. Each focused on disorientation, displacement, dislocation, disintegration, and distortion, but Compagnie Kafig managed to embrace the beast while Hubbard Street tried to domesticate it. And who wants a tame leviathan?

Perhaps dance is always about wresting order from chaos. But these days things are more disordered than ever, as certainties like the right not to be jailed without charge go up for grabs. So there’s a visceral satisfaction in watching dance that revels in disruption and offers a cheerful inventory of the possibilities inherent in being askew. Standing on your hands may not accomplish much, but it certainly makes for a new perspective.

Compagnie Kafig’s Dix Versions delivers not one perspective but ten. For 90 nonstop minutes these nine dancer-athletes engage in a riot of competitive break dancing, gymnastics, and contortions. They offer no apologies for departing from “serious dance”–just full-out dancing to a pounding techno beat straight from the 80s. Yet the message is unmistakable: whether isolating different parts of the body so each dancer seems divorced from himself or spinning around on their heads until the audience is dizzy, Compagnie Kafig paint a picture of a world out of control, their own work the graffito on the picture: Fuck art, let’s dance!

It may be that Compagnie Kafig is closer to the street–and its own roots–than the now venerable Hubbard Street. Hip-hop (or break dancing, or body popping, or B-boying) has always been practiced less on the stage than on the sidewalks, where the audience is apt to be as peripatetic as the performers. Our attention has to be earned every minute.

Compagnie Kafig grabs the audience with an opening tableau of what appears to be two people grappling in a wrestling hold, their legs twisted together and someone’s arm extended. The shape unravels to reveal–one person. Cartoons projected on video turn out to be out-of-sync and out-of-focus film of the dancers, whose live-action selves bounce and twist and recover from impossible falls like Tex Avery cels in motion. In a cartoon world, everything is hopeless but nothing is serious. And in Compagnie Kafig’s world, the point is not that leaps and splits and cartwheels and back bends are out of balance–the dancers’ confidence is the balance. In this they have assistance from choreography (uncredited, but presumably by artistic director Mourad Merzouki as well as the dancers) so connected to the music’s rhythm that it seems inevitable. Audience members whose usual experience of dance prompts the question “Why are they doing that?” would realize that here the answer is “Why aren’t you?”

It’s worth noting that this straightforward, rhythm-based, participation-inspiring work is American, returned to us in a Frenchman’s bag like Howard Hawks or Jerry Lewis. Among the company’s references are Travolta’s pointed arm in Saturday Night Fever; Donald O’Connor’s “running” in a circle while lying full-length on the floor (Singin’ in the Rain); Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly’s mock-cooperative duet “The Babbit and the Bromide”; a buck-and-wing trio like the one Kelly performed with cartoon mice Tom and Jerry (Anchors Aweigh); and Astaire’s Easter Parade duet with a hat rack–only more athletic, for Astaire needed trick photography to dance on the walls and the Kafig performers manage Olympics-style mounts and flips in real life and real time. They isolate parts of their bodies until they seem on the verge of falling apart. They writhe like snakes, then leap up and touch both feet with both hands. Even the familiar moon walk looks fresh with arms akimbo, the torso jerking as if possessed–reminding us that the times are out of joint. By violating ideals about what a dancer is and does, and what a body is and can do, Compagnie Kafig comments on the larger world, where violating ideals is par for the course. Yet usually when we say a performance is “violative” we mean “disgusting”–and watching this troupe is exhilarating, like flying on a trapeze without trapeze or fear of falling.

Hubbard Street, confronted with the same maelstrom, seems hobbled by an excess of caution, dipping its toes instead of diving in. The company premiere of Ohad Naharin’s Queens/Black Milk (made up of two earlier works, Queens of Golub and Black Milk) is literally disjoint–two pieces shoved together for no apparent reason, though both use contortion to illustrate and mourn the experience of dislocation. Queens, primarily a series of female solos, is magnificent: Naharin communicates frustrated yearning, self-immolation, the sense of being crushed and lost. One dancer twists her body until she looks like an insect. As in Compagnie Kafig’s work, inhuman body angles express profoundly human emotions. Reminiscent of Alvin Ailey’s signature piece Cry–a solo he dedicates to “All black women everywhere, especially our mothers”–Queens gives Jewish mothers their due.

Black Milk–a piece for men dressed in harem pants and Egyptian headdresses–uses dervish spins and other domesticated versions of the B-boy vocabulary to communicate impotence. Certainly that’s a legitimate subject, but it’s hard to convey lethargy without producing it, which is what happens in this piece.

Similarly, the world premiere of artistic director Jim Vincent’s Counterpart anatomizes male weakness: Jamy Meek, a powerful dancer, spends far too much time confined in small spaces or by the other dancers. Vincent addresses the confusion that often accompanies contemporary dance (and contemporary life), yet it feels more like an op-ed piece on disorientation than an experience of it. From the opening moment, showing the ensemble in silhouette, the dancing seems to take place at one remove from the audience–through the use of a scrim, as when one woman dances naked behind sheer curtains, or simply through the dancers’ preoccupied looks, as if engaged in some unexplained ritual. Vincent obviously had distancing effects in mind–the work is divided into “counters” and “parts,” mirror and reality, the shadow and the act. But again, leaving the audience unsatisfied is a chancy way to explore dissatisfaction. It’s a very smart work, and I’d want to see it several more times to parse its meaning. But the first impression it leaves is “Tastes great–less filling.”

Reverse Deconstruct, a world premiere by Irish choreographer Marguerite Donlon, uses many of the distortions of Dix Versions but in milder form. With its leans at perilous angles and hanging from pipes on the ceiling and running in the air it comments on involuntary or forced movement: people are led by their arms, their noses, and especially their legs, which–thanks to a partial wall suspended across the stage at the dancers’ midriffs–regularly leave their heads and torsos behind. But when at the end the concealing drop lifts and we see the whole person behind what had been orphaned legs, it feels less like a comment than a gimmick, a little self-conscious wink at the audience.

It’s hard not to be gimmicky, not to be self-satisfied, not to be removed when you’re as virtuosic and successful as Hubbard Street. But the virtuosi of Compagnie Kafig show that engagement with the world needn’t be lost along the way.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/D. Tivoli, Michael Slobodian.