Growing up in France, Compagnie Käfig’s artistic director, Mourad Merzouki learned circus skills, martial arts and boxing before carving out a career in dance. Leaving him perfectly placed to recognise the shared highs and lows of sport and performing arts.
“There are so many similarities between boxing and dance,” he says. “And because I used to box when I was young, I really noticed that the two have a lot in common. Even Mohammed Ali said he was dancing when he was boxing. So a big part of Boxe Boxe is showing those similarities.”
Spotting the ways in which Merzouki brings those worlds together is part of the fun of Boxe Boxe. Watching two performers square up to each other, as if in a boxing ring or during a breakdance battle, is just the start. Then there is the psychological preparation both fighters and dancers go through before facing their public (as demonstrated by the Käfig performers dressed in pre-match silk robes).
The need to practise the same thing over and over – be it punching a leather bag or performing a routine – also binds them, as does the physical exhaustion and personal injury that both endure, and the adrenalin rush that gets them through. As Merzouki says, it’s all in there.
“The pressure a boxer feels before a match can be like the pressure a dancer feels before the curtain opens – it’s the same kind of stress,” he explains. “You have to go on a stage, face the audience and, in a way, win at the end of the show. And there’s also the violence that dancers and boxers do to themselves for the pleasure of others. All of this forms the story of Boxe Boxe.”
Ever since Merzouki formed Compagnie Käfig in 1996, he has been playing with audience perceptions. If there’s a way to mix things up and present dance in an interesting and unusual way, he’ll find it. The opening scene of Boxe Boxe, where only the dancers’ boxing gloves are visible, held aloft like puppets, is a prime example.
"With each show I make, I try to give the audience something new and to collaborate in a way they would not expect."
“I wanted to give another view of fighting,” he says. “To show something that we all know – like boxing gloves – and then go somewhere else with it, somewhere surprising. The point is to put the audience in a totally different frame of mind – they are expecting to see boxing and hip hop dance, and instead they are sitting in front of ‘little dolls’ fighting together.”
Before we’ve even seen those boxing gloves, however, we already know Merzouki is taking us on an unexpected journey. Unlike most hip hop shows, Boxe Boxe is performed to a classical soundtrack, performed live by a string quartet.
The way the eight dancers and four musicians interact on stage, it’s clear a lot of time was spent during the rehearsal process bringing the two disciplines together.
“With each show I make, I try to give the audience something new,” says Merzouki, “and to collaborate in a way they would not expect. Boxe Boxe was a big challenge for me, because it’s the first time I’ve created a show with classical music, which is so very different from hip hop.
“But it was also very interesting to have the musicians involved in the creative process. They took the time to explain the music to me and the dancers, which allowed us to go deeper into the relationship between music and choreography.”
If, while you’re watching Boxe Boxe, you’re reminded of the fantasy world of Alice in Wonderland, don’t be surprised. The chequerboard floor, and over-sized costume of the comedic referee, are all part of Merzouki’s vision.
“I was inspired by the Tim Burton universe,” he says. “Because often in his films, you don’t know when it’s set – it could be the past or the future, it’s very surreal. And with Boxe Boxe, I didn’t want the audience to be in a known, specific space. The point was to build this other universe, full of imagination, where the audience could create its own story.”
It is this ability to take hip hop dance into another realm that makes Compagnie Käfig so special. Merzouki embraces a dance style born on the streets, mixes it with a narrative, set design and characterisation and hands it to a theatrical audience to discover. Yet never forgetting that the thrill of a headspin or backflip goes a long way – hence the very energetic encore.
“Hip hop is still on the streets with freestyle and battles, but it’s also here to serve as a subject matter in the theatre,” he says. “So I want both those aspects of hip hop dance to be together on stage. I never lose one or the other. That’s why the encore is there, to show the audience that hip hop still has that side to it.”
Finding a team able to demonstrate both the highly physical aspects of hip hop dance, and the more artistic side, is one of Merzouki’s ongoing challenges.
“I try to have dancers who are versatile, and can do as many things as possible,” he says. “But I also look for dancers who are really open minded. Because in hip hop dance, you still find a lot of dancers who are very technical but are not necessarily ready to be part of a creative process in a written show. So it’s very important for me to have dancers who are ready to take that risk with me.”
Of course, he also needs the audience to take that risk, too – which people of all ages are happy to do. Look around you at a Käfig show, and chances are you’ll see children, older people and everyone inbetween.
“Our shows attract a very diverse audience, which I like,” says Merzouki. “Dance used to be very elitist, so I feel like it’s my mission, a duty almost, to widen its appeal and to have as large an audience as I can, without falling into the trap of creating mainstream entertainment.”