Urban awakening: Compagnie Kafig dancers get down to hip-hop culture

Dance often is considered the purest art form in existence, needing only one’s body to practice. Then again, it must be inventive and adaptable, picking up influences from myriad social movements and contemporary chaos that envelope us.

The French dance troupe Compagnie Kafig will highlight their all-encompassing repertoire next week at Penn State.

Led by artistic director Mourad Merzouki, Compagnie Kafig will feature performances by 11 dancers who morph into whatever genre or theme they are called upon to reflect on stage.

Merzouki choreographs by cutting and pasting from his impressive past to include just about all of the unique bullet points that dot his resume.

“It all started with circus arts,” Merzouki said. “I was an acrobat and I had a passion for performing. When I discovered hip-hop dance at the age of 15, I realized that I could bring martial arts, circus and performing arts all together. I had a strong desire to share and introduce this form of art to the public.”

Heavily influenced by hip hop and using the music, dancing and fashion of that culture as the foundation for his art, Merzouki knows he has to constantly be on the lookout for rising trends, not only to keep his act fresh, but also to preserve the flames of his passion.

“I always try to bring many different styles and artistic disciplines into hip hop, as well as visual arts or live music in most of my pieces,” Merzouki said. “I keep working on opening and sharing my way of dancing to other styles and other cultures.”

While hip-hop dance has made significant strides over the years in being accepted as a legitimate art form, there is still a nouveau riche stigma attached to it that Merzouki hopes to dispel.

“The challenge for me is to give a new vision of hip-hop dance,” Merzouki said. “I want to show that it is totally legitimate to have this type of dance on a theater’s stage and that it’s open to all audiences. My objective is also to surprise and bypass the cliches that are still present about hip-hop dance. It comes from both the streets and the suburbs. The pieces that I do show that dance does not have any boundaries; it is gathering and universal, and I think this is an important message to convey.”

While hip-hop dance has exploded in popularity in the past quarter century or so, it’s this sense of worldliness that gives Merzouki and Compagnie Kafig their originality and separates them from the floor-pounding pack.

“I guess my purpose is quite unique; of course, the common denominator with other choreographers is that we use the same dance vocabulary, and the language of the body is universal, but my particularity comes from my background,” Merzouki said. “Since I started out with circus and martial arts, my artistic sensitivity is different. I’ve also had the chance to travel a lot with my shows, so all the people I get to meet abroad and the cultures I get to discover feed my creative process. I am always imagining new creations with an emphasis on openness to the world. I keep working on opening and sharing my way of dancing to other styles and other cultures.”

For the Center for the Performing Arts show, Compagnie Kafig will present two programs: the fast-paced choreoghraphy of “Correria” (Portuguese for “running”) and “Agwa,” which uses glasses of water as the focal point.

“It’s going to be a great night of performances,” Merzouki said, “The themes are universal and I hope that it brings the audience inspiration, energy and the willingness to open themselves to the world.”