Artistic Direction and Choreography: Mourad Merzouki
Music Design: The Debussy String Quartet and AS’N
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Compagnie Käfig is a well-established French street dance company founded in 1996 by Mourad Merzouki. Boxe Boxe is their latest production and is about boxing. But that tells you little of what to expect from this company or this show and what it does tell you is probably misleading.
Boxe Boxe is an artistically very well-realised show. What is going on beneath the surface is Merzouki drawing parallels between dance and boxing, this ancient form of combat: the choreography, the individual physical effort, the training, the risk of injury, the camaraderie and solitariness, the warming-up, the performance, the showmanship, the relationship with the spectators or audience. Dedication, sweat, fearlessness. And he does this using a finely-crafted blend of street dance, martial arts, contemporary choreography and theatre.
Boxe Boxe is an unexpectedly exquisite-looking show with a dreamlike, nocturnal atmosphere; very French in design with a fusion of modernity and history that gives it a sense of timelessness. It could be Paris or Lyon in 1900, 1955 or now. Dark, shadowy lighting is wonderfully designed by Yoann Tivoli assisted by Nicholas Faucheux and Julie-Lola Lanteri-Cravet. Benjamin Lebreton and Mourad Merzouki have created a high-quality stage design of impressive simplicity and sophistication, making use of a painted gauze backdrop, moveable staging and various punchballs and bags – adding a signature note of red throughout – which shifts seamlessly from scene to scene, from training room to ring. Emilie Carpentier’s costumes add to the evocative jumble of eras. It all seems glimpsed through dreams and snatched remembrances from old films and books.
Street dance-based shows can be formulaic but Boxe Boxe throws out the book of clichés and Merzouki has created a highly-intelligent, richly-textured show that uses many elements of street dance – breakdancing, spinning, body-popping, handstands, slow motion – but deconstructs them and fuses them with contemporary dance expressiveness and martial arts, wrestling and capoeira to create a choreography that is satisfyingly physical but also emotional and lyrical with strong musicality. And he threads it through with humour – much of it provided by a fat-suited referee (Aurélien Desobry – also a fantastic street dancer) who mediates, provokes and oversees much of the boxing action, providing some structure to the loose narrative.
A key element that sets this show apart is the music. Instead of using hip hop or urban, Boxe Boxe is set to a cleverly-constructed soundtrack of music by Verdi, Schubert, Debussy, Glenn Miller, Philip Glass, Gorecki and Mendelssohn mixed with original compositions by AS’N, all played live on stage by the Varèse String Quartet with huge energy, skill and intelligence, occasionally augmented by additional beats. The musicians are smoothly choreographed into the action as spectators and observers, their seats forming part of the moving staging. The quartet, able to be energetic or mournful by turns, add hugely to the atmosphere, creating a boxing narrative that is as capable of aching sadness as physical exuberance. The wearied exhaustion of training, victory or defeat as well as the thrill of the knockabout.
It could be argued that some of the sections are a little overlong but the dance cast are impressive – Rémi ‘RMS’ Autechaud, Guillaume Chan Ton, the aforementioned Desobry, Frédéric Lataste, Merzouki himself, David Rodrigues, Steven Valade, and Teddy Verardo. Verardo’s final solo is extraordinarily powerful for its relentless physicality and emotional ache. All bring individual character, likeability, fearless physicality and diverse street and dance skills to the ring.
Boxe Boxe brings together imaginative, exciting and unexpectedly emotive choreography with wonderful music, and fantastic staging and lighting to create a show that is emotionally satisfying and transmutes street dance into world-class dance theatre.
Boxe Boxe a work of fierce, visceral masculine beauty.