AGWA/CORRERIA choreography by Mourad Merzouki (Compagnie Käfig). At the Fleck Dance Theatre (207 Queens Quay West) until May 5, 8 pm. $15-$45. 416-973-4000. See listing. Rating: NNNNN
If you think contemporary dance is all navel-gazing irrelevancy, you need to see Compagnie Käfig's double bill, part of World's Stage's season and on at the Fleck only until Saturday.
There are lots of navels on display, but they're hidden beneath strutting, flexing six-pack abs, and their owners have more things on their mind than self-conscious musings. They're too busy twirling on their heads, breakdancing and plunging themselves into choreographer Mourad Merzouki's vivid, imaginative world.
Merzouki's company has appeared in Toronto before, notably in 2002 (with Dix Versions) and 2004 (with Corps Est Graphique). Say the names of those two shows out loud and you'll get some idea of the Lyon-based artist's playfulness.
There's plenty of that in the current show, which opens with Correria, a whimsical piece about running that begins with a spotlight on several pairs of sneakers and then evolves into a hypnotic, visually arresting and exciting look at transportation.
The performers for this show hail from Rio de Janeiro (they met Merzouki at a dance festival in 2006), and you can see the influence of samba and capoeira in their movements, along with the ballsy displays of machismo and one-upmanship from hip-hop street dance. The use of rhythm - whether clapping or tapping - is especially strong.
What Merzouki does is dream up dazzling backdrops for these dancers to do their thing. Shafts of light help isolate bravura bits of dance, costumes - like a crisp white shirt or multi-coloured socks, for instance - take on symbolic social importance.
And most of all, it's just a lot of fun.
Agwa, the second piece, plays with the idea of water, which many a contemporary dance company has riffed on. But Merzouki goes a few steps further, integrating elements of circus and a wild multiethnic, carnivalesque soundscape to maximum effect.
The dancers perform around dozens of plastic drinking glasses, and the effects are often magical. When the glasses are placed in rows on the floor and with low lighting, the stage appears almost like a ghostly graveyard studded with tombstones. Stacked together and carried around, the glasses resemble playful moving serpents.
The music ranges from rousing Jewish tunes to highly dramatic tango, with the disciplined dancers carousing joyously among all the cups and controlled chaos.
If you're a fan of dance, you probably already have a ticket. If you're new, you won't be disappointed. The opening night audience cheers and hollers were deserved.