White Bird Season 14 Wrap-up and Review – Compagnie Kafig

by Research Club

Last Wednesday, May 9, White Bird closed their 14th season with a one-night, high-energy performanc by the Compagnie Kafig troupe at the Schnitzer. Portland Stage Reviews documents the show well, but see the White Bird press release for some crucial background on the troupe and this show’s choreography:

An encounter between Mourad Merzouki and 11 young dancers from Rio de Janeiro at the Lyon Dance Biennial in 2006 is the inspiration behind this unique performance. The young dancers’ individual stories about their lives in the favelas and how they were determined to make something of themselves moved Mourad to create two heart-stopping works that showcase the young Brazilian’s astonishing acrobatic skills and dazzling virtuosity. According to Merzouki, “This language – hip-hop – is movement that comes from the streets, from poor neighborhoods, where there is a primordial rage to speak out, to give expression to furious energy, to the fierce desire to live. It is a voluntary act that matures over time, absorbing different schools of thought. Nourished by disparate elements, it becomes not only art but a commitment – to dispense with clichés and conventional thinking and to dismiss bromides about hip-hop as a social movement, in order to establish this language as an art in its own right.

Watching this show while sitting in the Schnitzer near seats that cost nearly much as a full day’s work at a minimum wage job, you sit among the tension between where the dancers and the dance itself came from and where they were performing. They came from a very different place, and those differences are all touchy — they are national, racial, and economic. Riskier still was the fact that the show was very fun, and the dancers grinned a lot. Was the fun to keep us from worrying about our difference from the foundations of the performance, or did the fun belong to the dancers, given as a gift to the audience? 

The tension is one of accessibility in both the literal and theoretical senses. There’s the familiar pull of irony-vs-victory whenever performers or styles rise to a prominence from humble or rough beginnings. Is the exclusivity worth noting, or is it not since the show costs just as much as it would for any other world-class troupe whose members didn’t grow up in favelas? Is hip-hop declawed by entering the stage or does it do so as a deserved acknowledgment of its formal qualities?  It is and it isn’t and that’s why there’s tension, but the challenge is in addressing it without suffering from it, in finding the art within and around it rather than slapping some on top of it. (And it should be noted that in case Portland has any budding b-boy geniuses who couldn’t afford a ticket, White Bird generously arranged a showing and Q and A earlier that day for public school students.)

Besides a bit too much grinning, I think they did exceedingly well by this measure. (And maybe I’m simply cynical in thinking that that much genuine grinning isn’t possible — I’m sure I’d be pretty damn happy myself if I could move like the men in Kafig).The piece is definitely a contemporary, stage-dance piece, doing more than simply showcasing some incredible breaking. At the same time, when the dancers do show their roots and flex their muscles, it does not feel watered down. They could have gotten away with a lot more showboating. Rather than restraining themselves, it felt more as if they were showing the freedom that masters of an art have to explore when they don’t need to prove how good they are. Breaking is the central vocabulary of the show, but the show as a whole is ontologically mixed and experimental. While making for a more interesting performance, this also means that the show avoids the hazard of being trumpeted as the greatest breaking you can see. There’s no question that these guys are among the best, but the best work within formal breaking is happening on streets and stages at the same time. But this show is not about what one can do within hip-hop dance but what hip-hop dance can do within a contemporary, international context.

The spareness and ingenuity of the second act, Agwa, nails this. The troupe dances with two props: clear plastic cups, and water. Nothing about it requires the Schnitzer any more than it requires a clear sidewalk. It needs a stack of plastic cups, some water, and a crew of incredibly athletic dancers and inspired choreography.

The first act both required and mocked the theatrical context more, but it still carried the infectious energy and freedom that blossomed in the second act. “Infectious” tends to get thrown around when talking about vague things like “energy”, but I mean it very specifically here. From the first moments on stage, the buoyancy of the performers filled the hall and lightened everyone there. Even sitting there as a critic, trying to feel for the edges of the sort of socio-economic tension that art school refugees like me usually seize on, it was impossible not to have fun at the show. It was so entreating that it did not require a deep reading to get at the reason it exists, but it was satisfying to see that the overall choreography stands up to that sort of rumination that you could do if you weren’t as busy clapping as we all were throughout the show.

The audience reaction, and the lightness of mood throughout the hall was striking. There’s a bit of cold war about clapping in high-class venues, but the side of clapping conservatism didn’t stand a chance at the Schnitzer. From the start of the show, the audience was gasping and clapping at each of the many surprises and moments of fission in the show. The obligatory standing-ovation even swayed a little bit during the encore — because the audience demanded an encore and the dancers had one ready, which didn’t seem at all out of place.

The unavoidable fun and blockbusterishness of the show certainly made it a good choice of a finale for the season. The house was packed, and the crowd was diverse and excited. Being my fourth White Bird show ever, it gave me a glimpse of the broadness of their program, especially when compared with some of their Uncaged series.

As White Bird prepares for some really exciting stuff in its 15th year, I hoped I could come up with some new insight into what makes it an interesting and important part Portland culture. But they’ve been doing a great job for half my life, and anyone who hasn’t figured that out for themselves isn’t in that position for lack of evidence or documentation. So instead, I’d like to borrow White Bird’s success for a moment to make a comparison.

In gallery world, we like to talk about advancing dialogue, of pushing boundaries, of entertaining the new art of a given field. But we are still quite cut off in Portland. We are cut off from buyers, from international fairs, and from most touring shows. We punch well above our weight as a city, but we send most of our best emerging artists away to big cities like the Midwest sent their best punk bands to New York in the 1980s. Why don’t we have a White Bird of visual art, and why have the past and current efforts to create something like that been so fraught? Visual art may not have the ticket-selling draw that performance does, but if it wants to be considered just as relevant it needs to look at its own metric of participation in comparison. By those metrics, we still do not have the coordination of patronage, audience-education, sustained international dialogue, and community development that White Bird represents to the dance community. We have a few institutions that do what they do very well, but until someone brings world-class artists to Portland as regularly and as visibly as White Bird brings world-class dancers, I think the gallery crowd needs to pay more attention to groups like White Bird and maybe even less attention to themselves.