BECKET - The French dance troupe Compagnie Käfig combines vigorous athleticism, a swirl of cultural influences and an ever-expanding dance vocabulary that seeks to bridge the street and the concert hall.
Eleven years after its debut at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Compagnie Käfig makes its second visit to Becket with a run of performances in the Ted Shawn Theatre beginning Wednesday.
The company is grounded in the hip-hop-inflected vision of artistic director Mourad Merzouki, who discovered hip-hop music at the age of 15 in 1988 via French television, but by then had already been training in martial arts and circus arts since the age of 7.
The two pieces Compagnie Käfig will perform in the Berkshires, though, were written for the specific skills and experiences brought to bear by a group of 11 male Brazilian dancers, after fellow French choreographer Guy Darmet suggested Merzouki write a piece for them.
Most of these dancers, Merzouki wrote in an email interview from France, came from the overcrowded favelas (usually translated as shanty towns) of Rio.
They were " dancing to express themselves, to exist, to survive the rhythm and the passion is really present within them. It really fascinated me," Merzouki writes. "When I first met these dancers, I really took their vocabulary as a starting point; I took 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."
The result is a very physical blend of capoeira, samba, bossa nova and other dance styles, filtered through Merzouki's hip hop expertise - which itself is colored by the other forms of his diverse training.
"My approach is still to bring many different styles and artistic disciplines into hip-hop," Merzouki writes. "I try to add circus, martial arts, visual arts and live music in most of my pieces. There are still martial arts aspects in street dance, it's all connected."
The first fruit of the collaboration was "Agwa," in 2008, which implies, with help from a few dozen plastic water cups various rearranged, the importance of water as the most basic element needed for human survival.
Merzouki wrote another piece in collaboration with the same dancers, "Correria," two years later; it is described as a " frantic" display suggesting the daily race for survival. The two pieces made their United States debut in Portland, Maine in May.
A third production, "Käfig Brasil," premiered in France this year. (It will not be featured in next week's performances.) For this, Merzouki invited four choreographers ( three Brazilian and one French) to create short pieces for the dancers. He says the transition of these dancers from the streets of Rio to concert halls in Europe and North America has been like a "fairy tale."
Jacob's Pillow artistic director Ella Baff first brought Compagnie Käfig to Becket for Merzouki's " Dix Versions," a showcase for the virtuosity of seven dancers incorporating elements of acrobatics and martial arts.
Though Merzouki co- directed a new work for Taiwan's National Theatre in March, and has also adapted work for the Beijing Modern Dance Company, Compagnie Käfig has done much of its work in France. Baff describes the company as largely " unknown" around here, but "fabulously entertaining."
Recognizing the broad perspective of Merzouki's aesthetic, as well as the ongoing evolution of the hip hop dance style, Baff hesitates to sum up the style as, in fact, hip- hop. It indeed contains some flashy displays of physicality, she says in a telephone interview, but also possesses sophistication and nuance in its choreography.
" It draws on the hip- hop vocabulary, which has the virtuosity and athleticism that hip-hop is well known for. But really, it's contemporary dance with a heavy dose of hip- hop, with an expanded vocabulary that I think anyone who sees contemporary dance can relate to."
Merzouki says he has an eye on both the streets and the concert hall stage, seeing room for his chosen art form to grow in each milieu.
"I would say that hip-hop dance has always been a means of expression accessible to everybody because it was practised in the street.
Today, it has evolved because more and more dance companies perform in theaters, such as contemporary dance companies," he writes. "For me, these two forms of expression are really different but equally important as sources of creativity, and I am still creating for both. In this way, hip-hop is very different from other dance traditions."
What: Compagnie Käfig
Who: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival
When: Aug. 15-19. Eves.:
Wed.-Sat. 8. Mats.: Sat.,
Where: Ted Shawn Theatre, 358 George Carter Road, Becket
How: (413) 243-0745; jacobs pillow.org; at the box office