Mourad Merzouki brings his Pixel dance creation to Abu Dhabi

Out of les banlieues, French-Algerian dancer and choreographer Mourad Merzouki and his company have overcome hardships to make their Middle East debut

French contemporary and Hip-hop dance choreographer Mourad Merzouki oversees a dance rehearsal  on September 29, 2015 in Bron, near Lyon, southeastern France. Merzouki has contributed to the recognition of Hip-Hop as a maintstream discipline in France. AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE DESMAZES
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Mourad Merzouki always wanted to bust out – whether it was from the gritty neighbourhoods of Lyon in France or society's dim view of his ethnic origin and his form expression.

It is no wonder the French-Algerian hip-hop dancer and choreographer called his company Käfig, which means "cage" in both Arabic and German.

Since 1996, Merzouki and his troupe have been touring the world, delivering eye-popping dance spectacles blending the confident attitude of hip-hop with the kinetic excitement of the circus and the more elegant refinements of classical dance.

With more than 20 productions touring Europe, North America and Australia, Merzouki's creations have gone a long way toward establishing hip-hop as a bona fide art form.

“It is a generous dance,” he says. “It is open, spontaneous, challenging and popular. It can be written or improvised, in the streets or in the theatres. It has this ability of being everywhere.”

The 43-year-old's fluid take on dance will next be seen in Abu Dhabi, with shows Thursday and Friday.

Kicking off the 2017-2018 season of NYU Abu Dhabi's Arts Centre, Merzouki's latest creation, Pixel, lives up to his ethos of continuously stretching the boundaries of hip-hop dancing.

Where previous productions saw him inflecting elements of martial arts and puppetry to his work, Pixel is a forward-thinking affair that revolves around its use of cutting-edge digital production.

"My artistic work is always at the crossroads of different disciplines," he says. "I like how it surprises the audience. Pixel is in the same state of mind. In this work I tried a new connection using technology dance."

“I wanted to open up the way where the synthetic world of digital projection would interact with the dancer’s reality.”

 Pixel was originally created for the 2013 RVBn, a festival dubbed the "Biennale of digital arts", held in Lyon.

Collaborating with digital artists Adrien Mondot and Claire Bardainne, Pixel is a surrealistic work that involves the dancers interacting with a Tron-like computer-generated world.

In the darkness of Abu Dhabi’s Red Theatre, expect the physical and digital landscapes to merge; you will be hard pressed to identify if the production elements on stage are indeed physical props or created on a keyboard.

In a subtle acknowledgement of Pixel's heady nature, Merzouki advises the audience to refrain from being too analytical; escapism, here, is the goal.

“It is mainly a piece aimed at making the audience travel and dream,” he says. “Anyone can create its own story from what one sees on stage.

“It is intended for any type of audience without distinction; no one needs to know anything about hip-hop dance or visual art to enjoy it. In my artistic work, I always try to make dance accessible to all.”

And in doing so, he is melting away the stereotypes associated with hip-hop.

Merzouki was born to Algerian parents in Saint-Priest, a tough neighbourhood in southern outskirts of Lyon, home to housing estates almost solely occupied by poor migrant families.

The neighbourhood, part of a network of impoverished communities that came to be known as "les banlieues" (which roughly translates as "the projects") was largely cut off from mainstream French society because of classism and xenophobia.

"It is complicated," Merzouki says with a sigh. "It is marked by difficulties such as exclusion, racism, unemployment. Growing up there wasn't easy; it definitely isn't the part of my life from which I keep the best memories. Every time we tried to get out of neighbourhood, we felt excluded from everywhere – we didn't get access to anything. As a teenager, I always got kicked out of nightclubs at the entrance."

After dropping out of high school, a decision he admitted he was not proud of, Merzouki took up boxing, at his father's suggestion. The physicality invigorated him and he went on to take on circus classes.

By the time he fell in love with hip-hop as a 15-year-old, Merzouki had the attributes to leap into a dancing career.

It was through performance, Merzouki recalls, that he found some of the acceptance denied to him as kid from
les banlieues.

“When you live in such a place, you look for any means to get out of it, to exist, to find recognition for who you are and not where you come from, to be listened to,” he says. “My way of getting out was [that] I found it through dance and choreography. It was tough to make it through. But seeing how dancing changed how people looked at me, changed how I was perceived by French society, it gave me the energy to keep going. It turned out to be very positive. The situation I was in made me work twice as hard to outdo myself.”

This meant maximum rehearsals with almost no budget. As was the case with the 1994 production of Athina, which he co-created
as part of his previous company Accrorap.

With no money to rent out a studio, Merzouki and his troupe rehearsed at night in local gym and public places before its festival-stopping performance to an ecstatic crowd as part of Lyon’s prestigious Dance Biennale.

Athina remains a landmark in French dance culture, because it ushered in the acceptance of hip-hop as a legitimate discipline.

Not content with that, Merzouki went on to "push the limits" of hip-hop choreography through circus elements he learnt as child, from puppetry to use of South American and Asian dance styles. He acknowledges it took a while for the hip-hop community to accept where he was going.

"There was an apprehension at the beginning, but today not at all," he says. "The French hip-hop community has understood that my work participates in making this dance evolve.

“Hip-hop isn’t dying in the street because it came in the theatre; its core essence isn’t dying because it has been confronted to other art forms or cultures. Hip-hop is defended everywhere in all its forms. It has this ability of evolving in many forms at the same time. And they complement one another.”

Marzouki is intrigued at the reception to his work in his debut Middle East performance in Abu Dhabi.

"It is a real pleasure to be able to present a show in the Middle East," he says. "From Europe, we don't know much about this area and usually do not have a very good understanding of arts and culture there.

“That’s what makes this job as an artist so exciting, being able to get to know other cultures, being able to travel and get inspired by others, different ways of seeing the world. It has always been at the core of the company, the link to what’s different – an openness on the world.”

Pixel by Compagnie Käfig will be performed at the Red Theatre, The Arts Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi, tomorrow at 8pm and Friday at 11am and 5pm


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