The French dance company Compagnie Kafig is coming to tucson -- Credit: courtesy UApresents

Hip-hop culture and break dancing were born on the urban sidewalks of America in the 1970s, developing a new language for music and movement that has spread around the world. In France, hip-hop dance found a warm reception in the country’s concert halls as well.

A leader in this dance evolution is 40-year-old Mourad Merzouki of Lyon, France, who was a preteen training in his hometown’s circus and martial arts school as hip-hop was growing in Harlem.

On Saturday, Merzouki brings his world-touring Compagnie Käfig to Centennial Hall, presenting a program of complementary pieces, “Correria (To Run)” and “Agwa (Water).”

The company’s 11 male dancers come mostly from the favelas of Brazil, saved by hip-hop and Merzouki’s fascination for turning this rebellious street dance into a disciplined art form. So far, “Correria” and “Agwa” have been seen in 95 cities and 15 countries.

“The dancers began their lives dancing as a way to exist, to survive,” Merzouki said. “This experience with the company has changed them from dancing in the street to being true professional dancers.”

The actual choreography came from the dancers themselves, Merzouki added. He took their natural movement, their “dance vocabulary” as a starting point, then gave them additional “homework” steps to learn and refined their efforts into the present choreography.

“The rhythm and the passion of the movement were always present within the dancers,” Merzouki said. 

The Boston Globe reviewer called the resulting performance “maniacally entertaining.” Comments from other newspapers include such action phrases as “a Brazilian tsunami” and “unfettered energy,” as well as “prolifically acrobatic … elegant” and “on intimate terms with grace.”

“Hip-hop has shaken up the whole dance field with its new rhythms, new movements and new energy,” Merzouki added. “But it does not stay locked in one unique style or one kind of audience.”

Formed in 1996, Compagnie Käfig is known worldwide for choreography that is a blend of modern dance, samba, bossa nova, acrobatics, Brazilian capoeira and the circus arts.

Loving imaginative dance is more important than knowing anything about hip-hop, Merzouki insists. He calls the two pieces on this program “a logical evolution” of dance that works because both pieces “tell stories on universal themes” accessible “to all audiences.”

“Agwa” premiered in 2008 as a raucous statement on the vitality of manhood, performed with feats of agility on a stage set with hundreds of clear plastic cups containing  water — without spilling a drop. Because, even with so much jumping around, water is always the most vital resource.

“Correria” relates more to the tension and endless running that fills everyday life. More like what people used to call the “rat race” on treadmills burning energy without going anywhere. Speed is always a major element, even when one dancer holds back another who is forced to run in place.

Chuck Graham has written about the Tucson arts scene for more than 30 years.