Brazilian dancers, circus, hip-hop inspire choreographer

Feb. 24, 2014 @ 05:33 PM

What does circus training, martial arts, hip-hop and 11 Brazilian dancers have in common? The answer: French choreographer Mourad Merzouki.

Audiences here will see how everything comes together when these male dancers from Rio de Janeiro perform two works Merzouki created just for them. These dances, “Correria” and “Agwa,” will be featured on Compagnie Kafig’s program today and Wednesday at UNC’s Memorial Hall.
Long known for his blend of circus and martial arts, hip-hop and other cultural influences, Merzouki discovered that he also related in a personal way to these young Brazilian dancers he first saw perform at a 2006 dance festival in Lyon, France, where his company Kafig is based.
Recently, Merzouki spoke by phone about how he related to that performance and the stories the Brazilians told him of their lives in Rio’s shanty towns. His niece, Astrid Toledo, the company’s tour manager, served as translator during the interview.
When he saw the Brazilians perform, he had been impressed by their energy, generosity and passion. “They want to live through dance,” Merzouki said.
Afterward, their stories of daily struggles in the crowded, ramshackle homes of Rio’s slums reminded Merzouki of his own childhood in Lyon, where he was born. His parents had moved from Algeria to France. “I grew up in a hard neighborhood,” he said. In fact, his father had sent him to a school to take boxing lessons. “He wanted me to learn how to protect myself,” the choreographer said.
Merzouki also wound up studying circus arts because these were taught at the same school by the instructors who taught boxing. He continues to use those circus skills, such as acrobatics, in his work but with a poetic twist, he said.
At 15, he discovered hip-hop and hip-hop eventually led him to other forms of dance.
He also related to the Brazilians because dance had also helped him get out of his own hard circumstances, he said. While dance has been a ticket out of Rio’s slums for many of these Brazilians, some still live there, he added. According to a 2010 census, 22 percent of Rio’s 6.3 million residents live in shanty towns.
Merzouki plans other future collaborations with these Brazilian dancers, he has said.
That initial encounter inspired him to create the two dances on the program this week: “Agwa” in 2008 and “Correria” in 2010.
Instead of creating “postcards” of Brazil, Merzouki said he wanted these dancers to strike a universal chord.
“Correria,” Portugese for “running,” speaks to the hectic pace of life today. “We run all the time … to live, to exist… we always have to do more and more and more,” he said. “To keep these rhythms going, we need two extra legs.” To underscore that idea, he actually gives dancers two more legs in the form of hard-soled shoes attached to sticks.
“Agwa” (“Water”) explores this life-sustaining element that also figures into a dancer’s life. “Dancers drink lots of water,” the choreographer said. In this dance, performers take drinks of water from plastic cups that also create the scenic design. Practical considerations figured into the use of hundreds of these cups on stage. “Since work on this project took place in both France and Brazil, we needed to work with a minimum of props,” Merzouki said. “The cups are simple, lightweight and not very expensive.” These cups present challenges for dancers. At one point, a dancer must even perform backflips over the cups without knocking any over.
Brazilian culture also figures into these works, including the samba and capoeira, a combination of martial arts and African circle dance brought by slaves to Bahia.
Merzouki seeks to convey a positive energy in all his work. “The energy comes from the dancers’ bodies and the audience receives it immediately. It’s joyful energy. This is one of the foundations of my work,” he said.
Merzouki’s own energy impresses those who work with him, his niece said. “He never stops,” she added.
In addition to the current, U.S. 23-city tour of the Brazilian program, the choreographer has other projects including a dance with 40 people on tour in France and another work with six dancers on tour in England, his niece said. “It’s really a big scene now,” she added.
When asked where he finds the energy to keep everything going, Merzouki said, “I love it. It’s a real passion.”

: Compagnie Kafig presents Brazilian dancers in Mourad Merzouki’s “Correria” and “Agwa.”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today and Wednesday. (Feb. 25, 26.)
WHERE: UNC’s Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill.
TICKETS: 919-843-3333 or