Hip hop enters the French arts scenes
Fifty years on, hip hop dance has carved out an important place in the French choreographic scene.
It is impossible to sum up forty years of hip hop dance in a few snippets of video. Any attempt is necessarily reductive and will give only a sample of the inexhaustible curiosity and creativity of French dancers and choreographers.
As early as the nineteen nineties, French hip hop broke away from American traditions to forge its own identity, with its own history and values, informed by the crisis in impoverished suburban neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Paris and other cities. While its origins are in the streets, young hip hop artists claimed the right to perform in the “legitimate” cultural spaces within publicly subsidised theatre. They wanted both to demonstrate their moves and techniques – acquired through rigorous training – and make their voices heard.
Hip hop choreography took off in France in the early nineteen nineties, when its freshness and creativity won the attention and support of arts decision-makers. For some artists, performing in theatres was a gateway to professionalisation. Certain institutions organised talent scouting, hosted artists in their rehearsal spaces, produced performances and programmed “urban dance” events, both to encourage the development of hip hop as a cultural movement, and to attract new audiences, particularly young audiences, to theatres.
Prowess and proficiency
As early as 1991, the Pompidou Centre hosted a hip hop festival organised by the association Envol 7, featuring, among others, Aktuel Force, Boogie Saı̈ and Maskot Posse. The following year, the Black Blanc Beur created Rapetipas at the Opéra Comique, on the initiative of Christian Tamet, then director of the Théâtre Contemporain de la Danse. In July of 1994, he produced Sobedo, staged by the collective Mouv’ at the Casino de Paris. In 1993, inspired by American Doug Elkins’ appearance at the Montpellier dance festival, Olivier Meyer created the Suresnes Cités Danse Festival. Philippe Mourrat, created the Rencontres Urbaines in La Villette, which took place in the Grande Halle until 2008. In Lyon, Guy Darmet, director of the Maison de la Danse and the dance Biennale until 2010, and Benoit Guillemont, DRAC* cultural action advisor from 1983 to 2020, also jumped on board the hip hop train. After an initial edition in Villefranche in 1992, the Maison de la Dance hosted three editions of Danse Ville Danse (in 1993, 1997 and 2001), a joint initiative of the Social action fund, the DRAC and Inter Service Migrants, bringing together dance collectives from across France. The company Traction Avant has been producing hip hop works since the early eighties.
Kader Attou, Eric Mezino, Chaouki Saı̈d and Mourad Merzouki are also part of the movement to bring choreography to hip hop in Lyon. They performed Athina with their company Accrorap at Danse Ville Danse in 1993. At the time, hip hop dance was all about expression and excitement. The audience, some subscribers to the theatre, some young people from the outskirts of Lyon, would get caught up in the show, cheering on the dancers and coming on stage to form a circle at the end of each performance. Kader and Mourad studied at the circus schools of Bel-air and Saint-Priest, and Athina combines synchronised choreography with acrobatic feats, incorporating circus apparatus, such as trampolines, stilts and monocycles. Later, they would be known for their innovative use of props and scenography. The following year, Guy Darment programmed the performance for the Dane Biennale at the Croix-Rousse theatre.
Danse Ville Danse has also hosted Franck II Louise: the amazing break dancer and co-host of the TV show H.I.P.-H.O.P. In the year 2000, he created his second piece, Drop It, which was performed the following year as part of the official “In” program of the Avignon Festival. Drop it is often cited as one of the most significant works in the development of hip hop choreography. Franck II Louise has a fascination with new, interactive technologies, science-fiction and the relationship between man and machine. In each sequence of Drop It, the music dictates the movements and placement of the six dancers on stage. The dancers are encased in futuristic armour, which they later cast off. The original performers are still well known today, and included, among others, Michel Onomo aka Meech, David Imbert, David Colas and Guillaume Legras. Their striking, synchronised movements thrilled audiences. Today Franck II Louise creates singular musical compositions, both for film and for choreographers such as Anthony Egéa, Kadia Faraux and David Llari.
Pockemon Crew came to prominence in 2003 when they won the breakdance world championships at Battle of the Year in Germany. Headed up by iconic Bboy Lilou, Pockemon Crew combines daring, one-upmanship and musicality, with a touch of provocative humour. They were among those hip hop dancers known for practising in front of the Opéra de Lyon (and would eventually dance inside its studios). They developed their choreography, creating their first original show in 2004 and then opened the Lyon Dance Biennale in 2006 with C’est ça la vie ?!: an energetic celebration of street style and the drive to dance. The breakers perform both solo and together, demonstrating their uniquely successful blend of skilfully honed original moves, collective energy and sheer entertainment. Successive generations of dancers have replaced the original members of the group, which is now headed up by artistic director Riyad Fghani. The other members also have parallel hip hop projects: Lilou - Street off, Moncef Zebiri - his company Freestyles, Yann Abidi – the French national breaking federation and so on.
Support from cultural institutions brought with it exposure to the traditions and conventions of mainstream theatre and choreography and to different aesthetics and practices, including those of contemporary dance. Hip hop choreographers participated in workshops and training. Some sought to move away from hip hop’s ostentatious style and themes of dissent, seeing its potential to evolve towards other forms of artistic expression. While hip hop was rooted in the group, recognition from the cultural establishment led to the emergence of individual artists with their own unique sensibilities.
Anthony Egéa founded the dance company Rêvolution in 1991, alongside Hamid Ben Mahi, now choreographer with the company Hors Série. Egéa pursued his passion for classical ballet in the early nineties, wining scholarships and entry to the Cannes school of dance. He sought to bring a classical sensibility to hip hop, combining light, airy movements with floor work to create a hybrid dance, which he taught in Bordeaux to professional dancers up until 2021. His style raised eyebrows amongst some purists. His 2003 work Amazones questions women’s roles. It features four women dancing barefoot (revolutionary in itself) in flesh coloured leotards, combining sensual movements with toprocks, upocks and more technical break moves, such as hand freezes, head freezes and spins. Anthony Egéa opened up new possibilities in dance, breaking down stereotypes of both gender and style.
Mourad Merzouki left the group Accrorap to create his company, Käfig in 1996. Working with his long-time collaborators scenographer, Benjamin Lebreton, and lighting designer Yoann Tivoli, he creates pieces often inspired by childhood memories. In Boxe Boxe, he revisits the boxing lessons he was enrolled in by his father. Cinema is also a strong influence on Merzouki: Boxe Boxe combines the colour pallet of Tim Burton, the legwork of Charlie Chaplin and the dreams of Billy Elliot. A theatrical mix of virtuosity and nostalgia, the piece takes the audience on a journey and the choreography is heightened by the creative use of props: the ring, punching bags, paddles and so on. Teddy Verardo dances a solo to the music of Death and the Maiden, in which the dancers surround him and challenge him, pushing him to new heights. The staging is reminiscent of both a hip hop circle and the hypnotic climax of Maurice Béjart’s Boléro, including the final sacrifice.
Jann Gallois first encountered hip hop as a teenager, when she stumbled upon some dancers practicing at the Forum des Halles in Paris. Trained as a musician, she was immediately drawn in and decided to make dance her profession. Carte Blanche is a 30 minute work showcasing her unique choreographic style. Having studied at a music conservatory and trained as a scientist, Jann’s approach is both meticulous and rigorous, with a touch of mischievousness that brightens her most unforgettable works. Carte Blanche is a kind of interactive game, where she, Marie Marcon and Aloı̈se Sauvage allow the audience to orchestrate the choreography. On mic, someone in the audience announces a number corresponding to a particular sequence of movements and names a dancer. In this way, each performance is a whole new work. Fast-paced and fun Carte Blanche takes audience participation to new heights.
The language of hip hop
Does hip hop have its own specific chorographic language? Some choreographers continue to take inspiration from hip hop’s original traditions, values and style.
Ousmane Sy was one of those choreographers. Member of the second generation of Wanted Posse (2001 world champions at Battle of the Year), cofounder of Serial Stepperz and the instigator behind the all-female crew, Paradox-Sal, Ousmane Sy brought clubbing culture to the stage in a spirit of communion and conviviality. Strongly influenced by his roots, he mixed house dance with the techniques of traditional African dances (sabar from Senegal, groka from the Antilles ect.), and drew inspiration from the music of Fela Kuti. His first long-form piece was called Queen Blood. In Mali, the country of his father, nobility is not associated with wealth, but rather the strength to over come life’s obstacles. Without recourse to narrative or other devices, Oussman Sy sought to create a cohesive troupe, in which the individual qualities of each dancer shine as they move with rapid fluidity, exhilarating energy and impressive endurance. Ousmane Sy passed away at the end of 2020. His precious contribution to dance has come to be known as the “LegaSy”.
Marion Motin discovered hip hop dance in her teenage years in the Forum des Halles and on the streets of Paris and its surrounding the suburbs. Famous hip hop choreographer, Nasty, took her under his wing, inviting her to join his company, Quality Street. Her first work, In the Middle, is a family affair, reuniting the Swaggers, the first all female hip hop crew, which she founded in 2009 with a group of strong, independent women. On stage, the Swaggers radiate an infectious mix of camaraderie and freedom and thwart audience preconceptions. Motin’s style is instantly recognisable. She uses the techniques of new style hip hop, mixing in androgynous poses. Her every movement is instinctive, vital and seems to emanate from the gut. Dancing to the vocals of Lhasa de Sela, her arms and hands move freely, while her lower body remains firmly grounded and her feet stamp in the style of flamenco. Judith Leray’s lighting is cinematographic, as is the sound design. Motin is inspired by westerns and the films of Miyazaki.
Bintou Dembélé began dancing in 1985, starting out in the street and club dance scenes. Since 2002, her work has combined dance, music, vocals and visual arts, exploring the margins and ritual and bodily memory. She challenges dominant white aesthetics, and seeks to develop “brown” thought and dance, born of the self-liberation of black slaves in America and the Antilles during the colonial era. For her, a solo is a kind of rite of passage, an encounter with the self. Her piece Solo II, is the second section of her work Rite de Passage, which she initially choreographed for a female dancer from the Lyon Opera, as part of the Danser Encore programme. In choosing to reprise it with charismatic male dancer Michel Onomo, aka “Meech” – four time winner of the Juste Debout competition in the hip hop and house categories - Dembélé breaks free from aesthetic norms and explores how the body is impacted by both personal experience and collective narratives. Here Meech undulates and pulses to the repetitive, minimalist score of Charles Amblard. His movements expressing now softness, now strength, in a style at times reminiscent of krump.
The 2000s saw the rise of contemporary hip hop dance and the recognition of hip hop’s legitimate place in dances festivals and venues. In the same way, other aesthetic movements, grouped under the umbrella of urban dance, have burst onto the scene in recent years: krump, electro, voguing, waacking... all dances with their own unique identity and a vital need to create community and affirm their existence.
*Regional directorate of cultural affairs
At the start of Rose-Amélie Da Cunha's project, there is a social and activist dimension. Coming from a working-class background, urban dances were for her a gateway, a source of inspiration and an encouragement to self-determination. After specialized studies in events and cultural mediation, she worked for 12 years on the development of Pôle Pik, a hip-hop choreographic center, the Karavel Festival then Pôle en Scènes, in the Lyon region. In 2020, she continued her commitment to dance and supporting artists within La Villette in Paris, by being responsible for programming hip-hop and coordinating the system, co-founded by the Fondation de France: Initiatives d 'Artists in Urban Dances (IADU). Currently freelance within an Activity and Employment Cooperative (CAE), convinced by the capacity of the Social and Solidarity Economy to achieve major transformations, she supports project leaders in the realization of their ideas, in being particularly attentive to the question of the representation of minorities in artistic creation. She has advised L'Azimut in Île-de-France for the programming of dance shows since November 2021 and was commissioned by the Les Nuits de Fourvière festival to ensure the design and artistic co-direction of the “Vogue la nuit”, at SUBS in Lyon in July 2022. She is currently collaborating on the writing of courses around hip-hop dances for the Numeridanse platform, in the organization of festive events for La Biennale and the Maison de la danse de Lyon and the dance and circus programming of the Maison de la Culture (MC2) in Grenoble. In 2023 it is launching a collective reflection to support the professionalization of the choreographic sector in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. At the same time, she volunteers in several Lyon organizations that echo her convictions: Rêv’Elles, Café Rosa and the Guillotière Neighborhood Council where she lives.
Rose-Amélie Da Cunha
Texts and bibliography
Rose-Amélie Da Cunha
Maison de la Danse