Costumes are usually deployed to serve a choreographer’s purpose, but in the case of YogeeTi – the Romanised version of the Chinese word for organic – they are the purpose. Inspired by the chunky, sculptural knitted costumes of young Taiwan-born, London-based fashion designer Johan Ku, Merzouki explores the choreographic potential of clothing that alters the contours of dancers’ bodies or constrains their movement. He explores the intricate process of weaving whole cloth from individual threads in tightly patterned choreography and, on a broader plane, examines what happens when a cast comprising dancers from different cultures, trained in strongly contrasted disciplines, are brought together.
Merzouki’s world-travelled Compagnie Käfig, now resident at the Centre Chorégraphique National de Créteil et du Val-de-Marne near Paris, is best known for daring, hip hop athleticism combined with bold theatrical invention. It was during an earlier company visit to Taipei that Merzouki saw an exhibition of Ku’s work and was inspired to collaborate with him for a festival-commissioned premiere involving five young Taiwanese modern-trained dancers and an equal number of Merzouki’s own seasoned, French hip hop artists.
In terms of Merzouki’s choreographic evolution, the result is remarkable. Although YogeeTi suffers from structural flaws – solos or duets sometimes emerge and recede for no apparent reason, and there are any number of false endings – overall the 70-minute work succeeds in creating a strange, other-worldly atmosphere of almost meditative beauty.
For all its visual and kinetic extravagance, it’s as if in this meeting of west and east, 38-year-old Merzouki, French-born of North African descent, has discovered his inner Zen. Amidst its predictable bursts of high-octane break dance there are moments of almost poetic calm and strangely transcendent beauty. In working with the Taiwanese dancers, Merzouki has discovered the power of stillness.
Ku’s knotted, knitted creations are complemented by set designer Benjamin Lebreton’s travelling curtains of suspended yarn. Under the varying effects of Yoann Tivoli's lighting plot, they become translucent scrims or shimmering waterfalls. Merzouki sometimes places dancers behind them to form a ghostly, frieze-like backdrop in dynamic counterpoint to the action downstage. In another sequence, the dancers braid the strands to create a forest-like effect or, using a horizontal thread, divide the strands into sections.
Impelled by As’N Merzouki’s surging score, a line of dancers thrust, contort and overlap their limbs with almost mechanical precision in a choreographic equivalent of threading, looping and purling. Later, cocooned within Ku’s knitted tubes, they seem like primordial creatures from the oceanic depths. Cloaked in body-length strands of yarn they could be mythical yeti or some strange order of hairy monks.
YogeeTi, which after Taipei toured to Kaohsiung and then to festivals in France, marks a clear maturing of Merzouki’s craft. Although it never quite coheres into a compellingly meaningful whole, its cascading imagery leaves a strong impression.
Photograph: Michel Cavalca.