Compagnie Kafig performs hip-hop dances magically

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The Pittsburgh Dance Council resumed its season after more than three months with Compagnie Kafig, which brought its own jolt of Brazilian sunshine and good humor to a dreary Pittsburgh winter.

Saturday night's audience at the Byham Theater roared its approval at the group, billed as hip-hop but displaying so much more. For Compagnie Kafig wasn't just about the spectacular tricks -- head spins, angular acrobatics et. al. -- that we have seen on television and in the movies. It was about the choreography, something that set this bouncing, good natured group of 11 apart from the rest of the pack.

More importantly, this was a chance to see the roots of American hip-hop in what we now know as capoeira, born of necessity in Brazilian slavery to learn how to defend themselves and disguise it through dance. In Compagnie Kafig, what we found was the indomitable spirit that gave it its buoyant style, now translated into a smart entertainment package.

Another story unfolded through the choreographer, Mourad Merzouki, who comes from Lyon, France, where the ensemble is based. Apparently Mr. Merzouki uses different performers for his projects and saw a Brazilian group of street performers, who inspired him to choreograph a work on them.

It was a match made in heaven.

The second work on the sold-out performance, "Agwa," was the result. Conceived in 2008, its simple premise was "Water." That importance is unquestioned, both environmentally and as a support system for human life. But in this instance, Mr. Merzouki also captured the thirst the Brazilians had for movement.

The result was magical, simply using about 100 plastic cups and, yes, some water.

It began with an undulating duo, moving amid a small forest of randomly arranged cups, some arranged, some stacked. Gradually the stacks mysteriously began to collapse, until one dancer disgustedly commented, "We must redo everything!"

And that they did, forming a line as they crawled across the stage like human street sweepers, leaving in their wake perfectly organized rows of cups for their dance landscape.

They were content to undulate across the back, until one dancer exploded, along with the audience, to a swell in the music, executing perfectly timed backflips and an aerial somersault without disturbing a single glass prop.

Mr. Merzouki was not only rhythmically astute, but melodically aware of the whimsical musical arrangements, ranging from ethnic to stormy weather to downright quirky.

As for the choreography, it imaginatively went from a hard physicality to finger-driven. And for that we must give them snaps.

The opening work, "Correria," made in 2011 and translated as "Running," signified the rat race that dominates our lives.

And that they did, beginning with a trio of men on their backs, feet peddling in the air. They began to chant, then to run in circles, joined by others as drums took over.

There was a brief tribute to traditional capoeira, with its back-and-forth steps and spinning kicks, when all of a sudden they began to lift the men onto their shoulders. Surprise was a key element.

The choreographic patterns melting into each other with an escalating sophistication. It proved that hip-hop had finally arrived, serious in innovation and fresh in imagination.

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