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It’s lunchtime at the Maison des Arts de Créteil, a grim-looking, concrete building in suburban Paris, and Mourad Merzouki is running late. The hip-hop choreographer is still on his scooter, I’m told, on his way from busting moves on a Parisian bridge for a photo shoot.
At 40, the former banlieue kid remains the poster boy for hip-hop dance’s singular success story in France. Thirty years after the genre’s popularity first soared in underprivileged suburbs from Paris to Lyon, hip-hop has completed its transition from the street to the stage, and up the ladder of the dance establishment.
Merzouki has been present every step of the way. His Compagnie Käfig, which returns to the UK this week for a countrywide tour, has won acclaim for pushing at the limits of hip-hop and blending it with outside influences. In 2010, Merzouki became only the second hip-hop artist, after longtime friend Kader Attou, to be appointed director of a CCN (National Choreographic Centre), at Créteil.
Merzouki apologises profusely when he finally walks in, and he is easily forgiven. Clad in unfussy street clothes and sneakers, he is warm and mild-mannered; his large smile bears traces of shyness, yet he seems fully at home with his role as an ambassador of French hip-hop.
“Hip-hop has evolved so differently in France and in the UK,” he reflects as we sit down. “In the UK hip-hop is closer to the street still, very extravert and spectacular. There is less blending with other art forms.”
The desire to take hip-hop beyond its street origins has been a driving force in his career. Born in Saint-Priest, on the southern outskirts of Lyon, to parents originally from Algeria, he grew up in what was starting to be known as les banlieues, the housing estates and suburbs where impoverished families and immigrants make up a staggering proportion of the population.
“I was like all the young people there: we weren’t comfortable with the way French society worked, we didn’t know if we were French or not. We were caught between two stools,” Merzouki explains.
School provided little respite. “I didn’t understand why I was going to school, and I dropped out early. I’m not proud of it today, but I have no regrets.”
Merzouki had other means of self-expression. His father suggested he take up boxing, which he credits with teaching him discipline; circus lessons were also offered in the same school, and much of his youth was spent between the two rings. When he discovered hip-hop, at 15, he drew on this solid foundation to devise small performances with friends including Attou.
“I had trained as an acrobat, and it opened me up to the idea of performing. I learnt to work with props, with music”
The aspiring dancer had the good luck to be in the vicinity of Lyon, where the pioneering Maison de la Danse was founded in 1980 and programmers were quick to notice the potential of hip-hop. The director of Saint-Priest’s theatre spotted the group during a fair, and invited them to be a part of a mixed bill on his stage.
“I was 18, but I’d never set foot in a theatre. We wanted to learn, however, and we realised it was a great tool to make hip-hop evolve, to tell stories by using it.”
Merzouki ran with the idea. Together with Attou, he created a company, called Accrorap, which made the line-up of Lyon’s prestigious Dance Biennial in 1994. At the time, the idea of renting a studio was still unthinkable in hip-hop: their creations were rehearsed entirely at night, in local gymnasiums. Athina was an instant success, however, and the growing interest helped Merzouki convince his parents that hip-hop was more than a passing fancy.
In 1996, Merzouki set out on his own with Compagnie Käfig, and proved to be a gifted, and hungry, choreographer. In nearly two decades, he has created 22 works, most of them evening-length. Multicultural fusion is always a dominant feature: over time, he has incorporated circus, contemporary dance and puppets, and brought in Algerian, Brazilian and Taiwanese performers.
Resistance didn’t come solely from the establishment, however: a number of hip-hop dancers originally considered the move a betrayal of the genre’s popular roots. When asked if it was a way to stretch the visual and choreographic possibilities of hip-hop, Merzouki nods.
“We didn’t want people to think: his name is Mourad so that means baseball cap, Nike, banlieue. We wanted hip-hop to be recognised beyond that, for its artistic potential.”
Boxe Boxe, created at the 2010 Lyon Biennial, is a case in point, drawing its inspiration from Merzouki’s childhood passion. “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.”
To bring out the poetry of the “noble art”, he elected to use classical music: the Quatuor Debussy performs on stage with the dancers. Merzouki still dances the role he created for himself in Boxe Boxe, and will perform at select dates across Britain in a tour that ends in June with a run at Sadler’s Wells, in association with the Spitalfields Music Summer Festival.
In the meantime, Merzouki continues to go back and forth between the streets of Créteil and the Maison des Arts. He has stepped up outreach efforts in the city with the creation last year of a dance festival, Kalypso, and defends the arts as part of the solution in the increasingly withdrawn French banlieues, where the 2005 riots took hold: “There is so much to do to nurture talent here, and dance is a window on to the world. What saved me was the feeling that I was being heard.”
His next project for the stage, Pixel, will explore yet another territory, digital arts, in collaboration with the Lyon-based Adrien M/Claire B Company.
“Subconsciously, given my story, I think I’m constantly afraid that I will wake up one morning and it will all be over,” Merzouki says, casting his eyes down.
“It’s like being a tightrope walker – it keeps me going.”