How they achieved verticality – interview with Käfig’s ‘Vertikal’ dancers

Photograph: Laurent Philippe

Before the performance of Mourad Merzouki’s brand new, gravity-defying show, ‘Vertikal’, I spoke to two of the performers from Merzouki’s company, Käfig. Vincent ‘Keys’ Lafif is a break dancer, and Pauline Journe originally trained as a jazz dancer, before turning to contemporary age 20. Having also done a lot of gymnastics, she tries to mix different styles of dance and acrobatics, and to take inspiration where she can, to create her own style. I realised during the performance, that this is what many of the ‘Vertikal’ dancers have done – they each have their own distinct, individual style, but come together surprisingly beautifully.

Keys and Pauline both started working with Merzouki earlier this year and seem very happy with their experience so far. “He really knew what he wanted from A to Z, he was there from the beginning to the end, always 100% implicated, so I loved that,” says Keys. “Although of course, when you know what you want, you’re very demanding and hard sometimes, but then again dance is hard. But I think he got the result he wanted.”

Keys in ‘Vertikal’. Photograph: Gilles Aguilar

Pauline says that, although it can also be fun to explore when working with choreographers who have less of a set idea, “it’s nice to have a frame and a goal, to know exactly where we’re heading”.

For both artists, it was the idea of aerial dance that initially attracted them to the project. “I thought it could help me to bring new elements to my art,” says Pauline. “I also already knew someone from the group, and I thought working with these people could benefit me.”

As the dancers’ styles both very much rely on floorwork, I wonder whether they had any apprehension of the difficulty of dancing without contact with the floor. Keys’ immediate reaction is “Honestly, when you come from break dance, you aren’t afraid of anything!”. Pauline had previously done some aerial dance – “But there was a lot to learn,” she says, “and we took it as a challenge”.

So what difficulties did they encounter? The dancers tell me that working with the gear (ropes and bolts coming out of massive rectangular blocks on stage) is not particularly pleasant and does hurt at the beginning. Keys tells me they did hours and hours of research to learn how to work with the equipment. “There’s that, but there’s also the aspect of vertigo and heights,” adds Pauline. “The rope is incredibly difficult to control and it really does steer you. We have to use our bodies completely differently, so yes, it’s a challenge, but it allows us to discover new sensations. Our experience with floorwork really allowed us to go beyond the technique of the gear; once we had the techniques and choreographies we could really let ourselves go.”

To create the choreography, Mourad began by putting together different duets and teams, before getting the dancers to start working with the equipment. “The [aerial dance] company Retouramont brought in the systems, but the whole choreographic part was directed by Mourad,” explains Pauline.

Keys adds: “During the creation, we all give our ideas and the good ones are kept. So we do participate in the creation, but Mourad directs – the show really is his baby.”

After exploring a three-dimensional world in ‘Pixel’, the element of water in ‘Agwa’ and complete weightlessness in ‘Vertikal’, what could be the next space Mourad Merzouki takes his choreography to? One thing the dancers are certain of: “Mourad is always full of surprises!”. I ask them if there is another dimension they personally would like to explore – they reply that perhaps a more theatrical side of dance could be interesting. Watch this space!

You can read my review of ‘Vertikal’ here, and find out more about Mourad Merzouki, his company Käfig and the National Choreographic Center of Créteil-Val-de-Marne, click here.