Review: Compagnie Käfig’s “Pixel” Blends Experimental Dance and Modern Technology

Photo by Laurent Phillippe | UCSB Arts & Lectures

Jessica Gang
Opinions Editor

On Tuesday, Nov. 13 at the Granada Theatre, modern dance troupe Compagnie Käfig delivered an electrifying performance of their production “Pixel.” The show makes innovative use of an interactive, virtual environment, and this fusion between dance and technology proves that Compagnie Käfig is at the top of the contemporary dance game.

French-based but Brazilian-born, Compagnie Käfig performed as part of UCSB Arts & Lectures’ Fall 2018 season. Arts & Lectures has been long committed to bringing established and creative artists to Santa Barbara, and Compagnie Käfig is no exception.

The company is made up of 11 dancers, many of whom were born or trained in Brazil. The team is known for their all-encompassing dance style which combines elements of hip-hop, modern dance, and circus arts with traditional Brazilian urban dance and capoeira.

The Granada’s center stage — which is usually characterized by an abundance of warm lights and classical architecture — was transformed into a darkened, boundless landscape. The seemingly endless quality of the stage was achieved by a floor-to-ceiling digital screen.

The translucent screen served two main purposes: the first as a divider, separating the stage into two main parts, and secondly (and most importantly), the screen served as a surface onto which tiny illuminated units — or “pixels” — were projected.

In order to fully explain the visual experience that “Pixel evoked, it’s easiest to draw a comparison between Compagnie Käfig’s performance and the last dance performance I attended: Company Wang Ramirez’s “Borderline,” which was also part of the Arts & Lectures dance series. Both dance companies are widely considered to be at the forefront of the modern dance revolution, partly because they both incorporate digital technology into their performances.

However, the two performances approach technology in radically different ways. While Company Wang Ramirez included high-tech elements like rigging, wiring, and electronic music in order to supplement their existing routine, Compagnie Käfig quickly made it clear that digital technology was as integral to “Pixel” as any dancer — maybe even more so.

“Pixel” was a collaborative project between digital artists Adrien Mondot and Claire Bardainne and choreographer Mourad Merzouki. Dancers continually wove through the pixelated projections that were thrown up onto the screen. The dancers moved effortlessly around the projections, between them, and even through them, creating an illusory effect.

This effect was rendered even more striking by the fact that the projections themselves moved just as frequently. Optical illusions caused the pixels to form into different shapes, like mountains underneath the dancers’ feet that suddenly rose up only to collapse, or raindrops that continually battered the stage.

Although the virtual aspects of the performance were undoubtedly its center, the actual choreography was deeply moving, centered, and emotional as well. In a performance dominated by optical effects designed to make the audience feel as if they were soaring through the air, the dance was remarkably grounded.

The only time any dancer left the floor was when they were hoisted into the air by another performer, and even then these moments were far and few in between. Though, unfortunately, the fact that dancers rarely left the floor made it difficult to see their movements, especially for those seated at ground level.

However difficult it might have been to see the dancers at certain moments, keeping the dancers grounded helped the group play to their talents and strengths. The members of Compagnie Käfig have a wealth of versatile experience, from ballet to breakdancing, and from capoeira to contortion. Although there are eleven performers in “Pixel,” the large number of dancers didn’t detract from the performance — rather, the individuality of each dancer was highlighted over the course of the night.

In fact, a major theme of the piece was individuality and society’s struggle to escape a collective group mentality, especially in the age of information and technology. Dancers had solos that were specific to their particular style and dance background, and their differences were celebrated and emphasized. At the end of the performance (amidst the applause) each dancer stepped forward to do a final, spontaneous solo that drew some of the loudest cheers of the night.  

In short, the performance was an incredible celebration of technological ingenuity anchored by human emotion, and I left the performance with a deeper appreciation of the rich results that can occur when digital forms work in tandem with human dancers to create a novel, immersive experience.