About this Recording
2.110386 - AMAR, A.: Pixel [Contemporary Dance] (Compagnie Käfig, 2014) (NTSC)
English  French 

Mourad Merzouki—Ambassador of French Hip-Hop


Mourad Merzouki has come a long way since 2004—from being the recipient of the prize for best young choreographer at the Movimentos Festival at Wolfsburg—to delivering the message at the 32nd Journée internationale de la danse in 2014, following in the footsteps of other great artists, such as Lin Hwai-min, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Anne Teresa de Keersmaker. Merzouki was born in 1973 at Saint-Priest on the outskirts of Lyon to Algerian parents. He grew up in what became known as la banlieue, the housing estates and suburbs where impoverished families and immigrants make up a large percentage of the population. Time and again this area has been the scene of riots triggered by the the lack of opportunities for the younger generation who feel alienated from French society. ‘I was like all the young people there: we weren’t comfortable with the way French society worked,’ Merzouki explains, ‘we didn’t know if we were French or not. We were caught between two cultures.’ School was not a place where he felt able express himself so he dropped out early. His father suggested he take up boxing, a sport which can provide those from underprivileged backgrounds with a career. When Merzouki later created his choreography for Boxe, Boxe he would comment, ‘Boxing is often thought of as a violent sport, but it didn’t teach me violence at all. I’ve always found boxing and dancing to be quite similar.’ Merzouki credits those formative boxing lessons with teaching him discipline. Circus training was also offered at the same school and much of his youth was spent practicing both. When he discovered hip-hop he was able to draw on this solid foundation in order to devise small performances with his friends including Kader Attou, who was two years younger, self-taught and also into street dance. When the enterprising Maison de la Danse in Lyon heard about their work they were invited to perform as part of a mixed bill. Merzouki remembers, ‘I was 18 and I’d never set foot in a theatre. But we wanted to learn, and realized it was a great tool to make hip-hop evolve, and to tell our stories.’

The next logical step was to set up a company so, in 1989, he started Accrorap with Kader Attou, Eric Mezino and Chaouki Saïd. In 1994 Merzouki created Athina which brought hiphop from the streets onto the stage. His choreography was seen at the Biennale de la Danse in Lyon and became an immediate success. He says: ‘All of a sudden I was not Mourad anymore, I was a dancer. We felt we were useful and that made me forget my ‘francofrançais’ problems’. While Attou continued to run Accrorap and ultimately became the first hip-hop artist to be appointed director of a Centre Chorégraphique National, Merzouki set out on his own in 1996 with a piece called Käfig at the Rencontres Urbaines de la Villette in Paris. Käfig means cage in Arabic and German and was also chosen to be the name of his new company. The name suggests the constraints of life in la banlieue and the social, political and cultural challenges that remain—and serves to reinforce Merzouki’s openness to many different styles of dance while remaining close to his roots in hip-hop. Some 20 years and 22 productions later Compagnie Käfig has given hundreds of performances in 61 countries for audiences of well over a million. The company is based at the Centre Chorégraphique National de Créteil et du Val-de-Marne where Merzouki has been managing director since June 2009. Ever since Merzouki took over the running of the centre (one of 19 across France) he has introduced an open door policy which has dramatically changed the relationship between visiting artists and the local community through social interaction and education. He insists, ‘There is so much to do to nurture talent here, and dance is a window on to the world.’ He promotes workshops in schools to get children interested in dance, and since 2013 has organized the Kalypso dance festival. Merzouki also opened Pôle Pik at Bron in Eastern Lyon in 2009, a space dedicated to hip-hop where creators can try out new ideas and expose hip-hop to other art forms.

Pixel was born when Merzouki met with Lyon-based Adrien M/Claire B Company. Adrien Mondot and Claire Bardainne from Compagnie AMCB are well known for events and performances which involve digital imagery, Pixel is set in a virtual world created by them. In this piece the world appears to be completely elastic: walls grow, waves roll and the stage floor breaks up. Eleven dancers, hip-hop performers and circus artists, move around in a space full of optical illusions in which the performers link up with digital projections. At times the performers themselves become part of the illusion, as if the pixel has ultimately taken possession of them and transformed them into flexible mutants. And we may well ask the same question that brought Mourad Merzouki and Adrien M/Claire B together: Are we still able to make a distinction between reality and the virtual world? A very timely question as virtual reality makes increasing inroads into mainstream entertainment. Merzouki says, ‘We are confronted with images everywhere—video screens, digitalisation—screens surround us. You only have to walk through the big cities of the world to imagine what they will be like in the future—a constant exposure to imagery is already a part of our daily lives.’

What fascinated Merzouki when he began to work on Pixel with Adrien M/Claire B was the dialogue between the dancing bodies and the digital landscape: ‘I was under the impression that I could not keep reality and the virtual world apart and urgently wanted to test a new approach to dance by exploring these new technologies,’ he says. ‘We playfully delve into a space which is alien to us when we share it, but we anchor ourselves in the virtuosity and energy of hip-hop while we do so. Add poetry and fantasy to the mix and you have a show that crosses boundaries between the arts.’ Regarding the finale of Pixel he says, ‘One has the impression that the dancers get sucked up into a black hole or void. Is it the machine which devours mankind or vice versa? Only time will tell.’ When the company took Pixel to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, in 2016 the following publicity appeared: ‘Many dance companies claim to break the rules, but only Compagnie Käfig seems to dispense with the laws of physics entirely. Incredibly funny and fast paced, their work fuses dare-devilish circus skills, street dance, martial arts, hiphop and astonishing digital projections’. A well-deserved endorsement. Merzouki also held classes there that were ‘geared towards beginners with no experience necessary, 18 years and older’.

The soundtrack for Pixel was created by Armand Amar who has Moroccan roots and discovered dance thanks to the South African choreographer and anthropologist Peter Goss in 1976. He was fascinated by the interaction of dance and music and the possibilities it can create for improvisation. He is well known for his prize winning soundtracks for films such as A Thousand Times Goodnight by Erik Poppe and The Concert by Radu Mihaileanu, to name but two. He has also very successfully collaborated with choreographers Marie-Claude Pietragalia, Carolyn Carlsson, Francesca Lattuada and Russel Maliphant.

Mourad Merzouki, together with his Compagnie Käfig, has elevated hip-hop to the world stage. In doing so he has created a multicultural contemporary dance form which takes equal place with modern dance and other idioms of the genre. He has incorporated circus elements, martial arts, contemporary dance and puppetry, and brought in performers from Algeria, Brazil and Taiwan in order to develop his ideas. In the lead up to a recent UK tour the Financial Times called him ‘the ambassador of French hip-hop’—a title which he truly merits.

Reiner E. Moritz

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