Corps est Graphique by Compagnie Käfig, choreographed by Mourad Merzouki and Kader Attou. Presented by Harbourfront Centre at Premiere Dance Theatre (207 Queens Quay West). Opens Tuesday (March 2) and runs to March 6, 8 pm. $21-$37.50. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
Ottawa - this city's seen some major spin-doctoring lately, but tonight an eager crowd of close to 1,000 people at the National Arts Centre is happily buying into a different kind of spin job. Sweaty, half-naked guys are whirling on their heads. Girls are twisting their bodies into sensual pretzels. Others suddenly jump into a big box and get twirled around as if they're in a kids' playground.
The mastermind behind this controlled chaos has got his feet planted firmly on the plush carpet next to the NAC sound booth.
Dressed in standard issue hip citizen-of-the-world duds - wool cap, track suit jacket, jeans and designer shoes - Mourad Merzouki's as cool and clever as the political fat cats a few blocks away.
After all, he's managed to put hiphop and breakdancing on the international dance map.
"But just because we're performing in these nice theatres doesn't mean we've lost the connection to the street," says the artistic director of Compagnie Käfig, who rolls into town for a week-long gig beginning Tuesday (March 2) at the Premiere Dance Theatre.
"It's give and take," says Merzouki, speaking in French through an interpreter. "We feed off both groups and evolve. If our lives were only in the street, we wouldn't reach much of an audience. And if we spent all our time in these nice theatres we wouldn't be able to create a thing."
No need to worry about new creations. What comes across in works like his new piece, Corps Est Graphique, and 2002's Dix Versions - pronounce those two French titles and you'll get a sense of the guy's playful wit - is a wide range of influences.
"Hiphop, breakdancing, Smurf, new style - it's all in the mix," he says, backstage at the NAC the day after the troupe gets a standing O from the mostly white and middle-class (but definitely younger-than-usual) Ottawa dance crowd.
Add to this Merzouki's early training in karate and circus - he attended circus school from age seven upward - and you've got a pretty unique vision, part ghetto, part Fellini, part Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
"My early stuff really played with people's heads," he says. "I'd have hiphop dance but then have the guy start juggling, or dress someone up as a clown."
The same is true of the musical influences. Corps Est Graphique draws on everything from Arabic and Indian to Spanish sounds, and processes them all into a lounge-like groove that creates its own spell.
"I was born in France but I have North African roots," Merzouki explains. "I grew up with kids from so many different cultures. That's part of who I am. And that's what I offer back to the world."
Sounds simple, but how does a kid with seven siblings in a working-class ethnic suburb in Lyon make it to the world's big stages?
The route? TV. No, not MTV - Merzouki doesn't come across as an American Idol-izer - but a weekly program that aired in France in the early 80s.
"Every Sunday you'd see a hiphop dancer come on and he'd show you these moves and how to do them," recalls Merzouki, who can still get down and balance his weight on an outstretched arm or make his limbs ripple as if they're made of rubber.
"After each show my friends and I would be out on the street doing them all night."
His life changed when modern dance guru Guy Darmet, the artistic director of the prestigious Lyon Biennale de la Danse and the Maison de la Danse, took an interest.
"He was like a god," admits Merzouki. "Everyone dreamed of performing at that house. But we were scared. If we joined the institution, would we have to sanitize our work?
"Guy was all about respect. He helped us with technique, refined our choreography and let us take our work to a professional level."
And Merzouki keeps pushing the boundaries. Dix Versions was all about diversity - it included a 300-pound hiphopper whom the choreographer met in the Bronx - and one of the big themes in Corps Est Graphique is the role of women in a field dominated by misogynist guys.
"Hiphop started in rivalling gangs who used dance instead of knives in subways, at night or in the streets," he explains.
"There wasn't much room for women in all that. But it's evolved, and now the field's opened up."
Merzouki admits that women bring more sensuality to his shows and don't tend to strut as much as the testosterone-charged breakdancers or backflippers. But he choreographs each new piece based on individual personalities.
Which makes injuries a killer.
"We've only had to readjust a show once when a dancer got hurt," says Merzouki, who doesn't employ understudies. "But gone are the days of rehearsing regularly on asphalt. We know how to train - we warm up. We're like any other dancers in that respect. Still, I cross my fingers every night."
corps est graphique choreographed by Mourad Merzouki, March 2-6 at 8 pm. Rating: NNN
Hiphop music and dance has long been dominated by guys, but France's Compagnie Käfig is trying to break with those breakdance traditions. Käfig's new show, Corps Est Graphique, is as sweaty and athletic as Dix Versions, which made us sit up, shout out and take notice of the Lyon-based troupe two seasons ago.
But their all-out strutting and look-at-me bravura have, with a shot of estrogen, turned into a more mature, sensuous look at line and human form.
From the top of the hour-long show, choreographer Mourad Merzouki plays with our perceptions. The opening sequence is a visual joke, with four dancers sporting striped boxes on their heads so we're forced to look at their lower bodies. What's male? What's female? Easy.
Merzouki takes this gender play further by replacing the initial loose, India-inspired outfits with full bodysuits with cotton puppets sewn onto the fronts, so we see the movement of limbs clearly. Now, what's male and female? Not so easy.
The sensual choreography works well with the Arab-influenced, trance-like score, and Merzouki's background in circus is revealed in the playful use of an onstage box that becomes everything from a merry-go-round to an X-ray machine to a pedestal for a writhing harem.
A theme about writing (the Graphique in the title) is underdeveloped, but that's a tiny point in an ambitious show.