Boxing, no matter what anyone says, has never been just about throwing punches. As Compagnie Käfig's Boxe Boxe proves, the boxer – a somewhat lost icon in our times – can be as playful, and sensual, as he or she is fierce and overwhelmingly impressive. With a heavy fog hanging over Edinburgh's Festival Theatre, Boxe Boxe, masterminded by French choreographer and director Mourad Merzouki, brought a much-needed vibrancy and spectacle to both the city and the stage.

Boxe Boxe © Karl L
Boxe Boxe
© Karl L

Not unlike the “warming-up” of the crowd at the circus, Boxe Boxe opens with a puppet show using just boxing gloves, the dancers are hidden from view inside a blacked-out boxing ring centre stage. As the red gloves appear and then disappear, playfully attempting to escape the ring, what was once an essential piece of the boxer's armour becomes a tool of humour and whimsy. When the big-bellied referee appears, played by dancer Steven Valade, you cannot help but recall the hilarious boxing scene in Charlie Chaplin's wonderful film City Lights. Merzouki draws directly from the slapstick and physical comedy of performers such as Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Compagnie Käfig with a cast of seven men and one woman, is primarily a hip hop company, and the bravado of the breakdancing battle lends itself magnificently to the drama of the boxing ring. Jam-packed with crowd-pleasing acrobatics and a flair of the grotesque, Boxe Boxe is everything you could want from a piece of theatre.

In this world of the gymnasium, or training ground, the dancers rework the “boxer” repertoire of pre-fight rituals, sparring endlessly with both themselves and each other. At one point a fleet of punching bags swing across the stage, the dancers each take of hold of the bags, suspended into almost horizontal shapes and then boomerang back up in unison, the punches and kicks begin once more. The pendulum punching bags are just one of the numerous props that are used to great effect.

Le Quatour Debussy (Boxe Boxe) © Karl L
Le Quatour Debussy (Boxe Boxe)
© Karl L

The Debussy Quartet, which plays on stage throughout the show, provides an essential dynamism to Merzouki's choreography – the brutality and violence of the fight collides with the elegance and grace of the body responding and reacting to the often mournful compositions of Schubert and Mendelssohn. For Merzouki it seems, the losing is as, if not more, beautiful than winning because both the boxer and dancer has “given everything” – the ultimate entertainer.

Boxe Boxe satiates every craving for rhythm, and the music of Glenn Miller and Debussy amongst others build a fantastic conversation between dancers and musicians, particularly when the quartet is at the centre of the action. Every poised hit, or prat fall is partnered with the a plucked string or dragged bow. In the tradition of the Greek chorus, the musicians shadow the dancers, navigating the stage on high-backed wrought iron chairs on wheels. In fact there is nothing in Boxe Boxe that is stationary. The set is separated and then reunited at the will of the performers, not unlike the equipment of a gymnasium. Designed by Benjamin Lebreton in collaboration with Merzouki, the set brings a gothic romance to the frenzied ring, as do the costumes echoing the panache of the circus strongman.

Compagnie Käfig's Boxe Boxe © Karl L
Compagnie Käfig's Boxe Boxe
© Karl L

Merzouki's recipe for choreography is a winning one, rooted in circus arts and martial arts; with a heavy dash of the urban breakdancing scene, Boxe Boxe is a perfectly blended fusion of styles. His dancers steamroll across the stage, flying from tightly woven footwork to suspended barrel jumps and never-ending handstands. There is something sublime about seeing dancers in such control of both their bodies and the space they occupy, and Merzouki extracts an enormous amount from his performers. Windmill after windmill, motifs become kinetic cyclones where it is hard to know where one body begins and the other ends.

As the piece progresses, fight after fight, in between the hilarious 'posturing', a narrative begins to appear. We start to understand what is at stake; in other words – “what are we fighting for?” The revelation evokes what the great Muhammed Ali once said, "the fight is won or lost far way from the witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights". The lights are almost out when dancer Teddy Varado closes the performance with what can only be thought of as the boxer's “dying swan”. Surrounded by the musicians and other dancers, he is at once tortured and wild as he is wounded and beautiful. Merzouki realized early on in his life that "boxing was a form of dance", and how both the dancer and the fighter abandon themselves to "satisfy the public", and I can report that the public was more than satisfied.

*****