Mourad Merzouki is a French hip-hop dancer and choreographer. He is the founder of the Käfig dance company, and the current director of the Centre Chorégraphique National de Créteil et du Val-de-Marne, near Paris. During this phone interview I learned about Mourad’s roots, what inspires him, the way he works… But above all, I learned about the beautiful message he strives to convey through his choreography.
Mourad got into hip-hop almost by accident. At seven years old, his father sent him to a local martial arts school to learn karate and boxing. This school later became a circus school, which is where young Mourad became passionate about acrobatics and performing circus numbers. It was his first experience of the performing arts. “Hip-hop arrived in France in the 1980s, so I grew up in a neighbourhood where everyone did hip-hop, it was a real craze at the time. I loved hip-hop because it resembled circus: it was acrobatic, and I could perform shows with it – I used to put on shows in the street, mixing hip-hop and circus. So I really fell into hip-hop by chance, I never thought I would become a choreographer – I just loved the idea of creating shows.”
Where do you find your inspiration as a choreographer?
“I find inspiration every day in the people I meet. Being a choreographer doesn’t come with having a diploma, it’s a state of mind: it’s about being curious about things, about life, about people and cultures … When you’re curious, everything you see and everything you learn can be shared. Personally, I share it on stage through dance – others share it through painting or singing. I find my inspiration in what I live every day. I often think, ‘I’d love to make that into a choreography because I love this music, or those dancers intrigue me…’ .”
What message do you hope to convey through your choreography?
Mourad was born in 1973 in Lyon, France, to parents who originally came from Algeria. “It wasn’t always easy when I was young, because we were made to feel as if we weren’t French. We had difficult experiences with racism, rejection, exclusion … I’m very lucky to have a job that involves bringing people together. Dance makes it possible to have people from deprived neighbourhoods, people from the town centre, people of every social class come together in a theatre or other public space. The message I wish to convey to the people who are watching my choreography and the dancers performing on stage (most of whom come from deprived neighbourhoods), is that we live in a country where there is intelligence and positive energy. Just because we aren’t all identical, doesn’t mean we can’t produce poetic things that we can share. I like being able to give a different image of our country and of our neighbourhoods, and to bring people together through a shared passion.”
Of all the shows you have created, which is your favourite and why?
“That’s a difficult question to answer because all my shows are very different. I can’t say I prefer this or that show, although when I see one I created 20 years ago, I sometimes ask myself ‘What was I thinking?’! I understand that people who watch the shows might prefer one to another, or find one more emotionally resonant than another, but I don’t have enough distance from my work to do that. Every time I create a show I try to evolve, and each time I have a very intense, unique experience, and that allows me to keep moving forward.”
When you are creating a piece, how do you usually work with the dancers?
“When I bring the creative team together (dancers, musicians, the scenographer, the costume maker, the lighting engineer, etc.), I give them a starting point, a theme I want to work on. Then, when we begin to rehearse, we’re in a period of research and creation. Often, between the initial and final idea, the work evolves. Sometimes I’m surprised, because I wasn’t expecting to go in that direction, but that is where the research took me. I leave plenty of room for other people’s suggestions, especially suggestions for movements. It isn’t me who shows the dancers the movements; I usually take theirs as inspiration and then build on them to create a choreography. I cook something up with all these gestures, all these bodies – I direct, I guide, I decide … everything gets pieced together. Creating a new show takes time, because you begin with a completely blank page that you gradually have to fill. It’s a collaborative process, not just with the dancers, but also with the whole creative team.”
How do you choose the dancers for your various projects? What are the qualities you look for in a dancer?
Mourad holds auditions to recruit his dancers, which allows him to be as open as possible and discover new talent. “What I’m looking for during auditions, of course, is a dancer who is technically very strong. It is often a hip-hop dancer, but not always – depending on the project, I might, for example, be looking for a contemporary dancer or a circus performer. The dancer must also be versatile and have a large range of skills. They need to be comfortable in their own style of dance, but also be prepared to perform acrobatics, or use props … The more versatile the dancer is, the more interesting it is for me. In hip-hop, for example, a dancer can be very good at breakdance, but if you ask them to dance upright, or to improvise, they’re lost. That can be a real problem when you’re in the creative process.”
You are involved in a number of dance- and choreography-related social projects – why do you think these are so important?
“When I go from the theatre to the street, from professionals to amateurs, I like to maintain the same level of expectation and quality. The great strength of hip-hop is that it can take place anywhere, it can touch any audience. I try to reach out to audiences from deprived neighbourhoods, for example – people who are not necessarily interested in theatres and culture. I do this through dance and projects that are designed to be creative, not just workshops or entertainment. I think there is a clear link between artistic and social projects that I don’t repress, on the contrary, that I integrate into my work. I like to organise processions in the streets with young and less young people, with non-dancers, and I try to invent a choreography with them, create a show. When they are actively involved in such a project, people can better understand dancers and dance are about. People become participants, which often makes them more interested in what’s going on inside theatres.
At the same time, of course, I still love being demanding and creative with professional dancers. So for me there is no separation; there is a real connection between work done ‘in the field’ and within institutions. It’s about inventing all these different ways to engage with people who don’t have access to, or are not used to going to the theatre, so that they become interested in art and culture. Myself, I didn’t know anything about dance and theatres when I was young – my parents would never take me to see classical or contemporary dance shows. I was 17 or 18 when I discovered contemporary dance, for example.”
You have often worked with dancers from other countries. What attracts you to these international collaborations?
“It’s the desire to understand the world a bit better. I’m curious to see how people dance in Asia, in the United States, in Africa … By working with people from different cultures, I nourish myself, my eyes are opened, and I see the world differently – it’s really thrilling.”
Do you ever find it difficult to mix hip-hop with other styles of dance, for example with traditional Brazilian dance as you did for ‘Correria Agwa’?
“At the beginning of the project, I had to really understand the Brazilian dancers’ technique and energy, which I wanted to share with the audience. After that, it isn’t difficult – it’s just cooking. It’s about what I’m going to cook with these ingredients, how I’m going to build upon them. In ‘Correria Agwa’, I discovered a completely different energy to the one we have in France – it really bowled me over and seduced me, and gave me lots of ideas for that show.”
Do you think you might one day collaborate with a classical ballet company?
“I’d love to! I’ve already done some work with ballet dancers for a project called ‘Yo Gee Ti’, where I worked with Taiwanese dancers. There were some hip-hop dancers and some ballet dancers, but they were neo-classical and contemporary ballet dancers. I’d definitely love to do a show with just ballet dancers, while trying to nudge them a little towards my own field, which is hip-hop.”
After so much success over the past 20 years, what are your ambitions for Käfig for the next 20 years?
“I’d love for Käfig to continue sharing all the work we do with as many people as possible, and I hope that my shows will keep touching the audience. It’s hard to say in advance, because you never know – you worry that your work will disappoint, but I hope that it will continue to be appreciated by lots of people.”
What advice would you give to young people interested in becoming choreographers?
“There is no diploma to become a choreographer – it is your state of mind that will eventually lead you to have a thousand ideas at the same time, because you will be curious and will see all these things. We are all like sponges: the more we soak up, the more our mind expands, and then we are ready to truly share. If I had stayed in my neighbourhood with my friends, hanging out at the foot of our tower block, I would never have created ‘Pixel’, for example. The reason I’m able to produce a show like that is because I try to work with people and discover new things. To be a choreographer, you also have to take risks, and not be afraid to venture into the unknown. It’s scary, but it’s important to not just keep doing the same things without learning about different worlds.”
Thank you again to Mourad Merzouki for taking the time to answer my questions. To learn more about this remarkable choreographer, his company Käfig, and the CCN de Créteil et du Val-de-Marne, click here.
To read my review of his show ‘Pixel’, you can click here, and to read my interview with Käfig dancer Amélie Jousseaume, click here. To read my review of Mourad’s show ‘Correria Agwa’, you can click here, and to read my interview with the Brazilian dancers, click here.