Every artist hopes to find that perfect muse to inspire their work. Compagnie Käfig founder and choreographer Mourad Merzouki was lucky enough to find 11 of them all at the same time.

Thanks to an introduction from fellow choreographer Guy Darmet, Merzouki met a group of scrappy young men from Rio de Janeiro at the Lyon Dance Biennial in 2006, and they immediately struck a chord with him. “These young dancers, mostly from Rio’s favelas, were dancing to express themselves, to exist, to survive,” Merzouki says. “The rhythm and the passion is really present within them. It really fascinated me, and I decided to create the piece Agwa for them.”

Agwa, which means water in Portugese, was soon followed by Correria, which means running. “I try to tell stories on universal themes, and topics that mean a lot to people in every country,” Merzouki says. “For Correria/Agwa, I wanted to work on a project which was not only linked to what we already know about Brazil, the favelas, etc. Water and running were very interesting to me because they concern dancers and also the rest of the world. In today’s society, we need to run, and water is a vital element. But I don’t necessarily want to deliver a particular message through all my creations.” Both pieces blend elements of hip-hop, capoeira, samba, bossa nova, and electronic music.

Born in France and trained in martial arts and circus performance, Merzouki has a very different background from the street-smart dancers. He took some time to get to know them as he developed the pieces, allowing their natural talents to shine through. “When I first met these dancers, I really took their vocabulary as a starting point,” Merzouki says of the creation process. “I used their movements to create the piece. I also gave them ‘homework,’ and then my job was to connect the pieces and refine the whole choreography.”

He adds, “At first, it was a very individual dance. We had to learn to dance as a group and be very precise with the music. It implies a lot of work and time, and I am working on refining this work every time.” He says it’s very important to find the right balance between spontaneity on stage — one of hip-hop’s greatest strengths — and precision, which is sometimes lacking in hip-hop dance.

Merzouki encountered hip-hop for the first time when he was 15 years old, and through it, he found his love of dance. He decided to develop the art of hip-hop while experimenting with other dance styles and circus and martial arts, working with choreographers like Maryse Delente, Jean-Francoise Duroure, and Joef Nadj. In 1989, he and a few other dancers created his first company, Acrorap. In 1996, he broke away to establish Compagnie Käfig, and he’s been bringing his brand of athletic-style hip-hop to stages across the globe ever since.

The original 11 dancers still star in the show, each with nicknames like Leo, Fxola, White, Ze, and Dieguino. “Nicknames were their choice, but it was very useful to me at the beginning because there are 11 of them and their names are very long,” Merzouki says.

The show’s all-male cast emphasizes certain aspects of hip-hop, according to Merzouki. “With such a cast, we can really feel the force and the rhythm of hip-hop dance, and this energy really holds the whole show,” he says. However, some of his more recent shows do include female dancers as well. “Originally, hip-hop really was a male dance,” he says. “There were very few women. Today, they are dancing hip-hop more and more, so it seems important to me to highlight them in my creations. They bring a lot to hip-hop and help it evolve.

“Hip-hop dance is a young dance, still a bit fragile, but it evolves very fast with choreographic writing,” he adds. “These pieces show that dance does not have any boundaries — it is gathering and universal. In today’s context, I think this is an important message to convey.”

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