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  • Arts & Culture
  • Issue 36



In the 1990s, Marion Motin swapped ballet classes for hip-hop battlegrounds in the Parisian banlieues. The celebrated choreographer talks to Daphnée Denis about her guiding belief in “immediate movement”—and why touring with Madonna almost broke her. Words by Daphnée Denis. Photography by Cédric Viollet. Styling by Mélodie Zagury. Hair & Makeup by Gaëlle Bonnot. Producer by Ségolène Legrand. Photo Assistant by Victor Gueret. Agent by Clara Hautecoeur.

When she was a child, Marion Motin would lie on the vacuum cleaner while it was on to feel it vibrating. “My mother used to tell me that I was very receptive to all the weird music of daily life—I would even shake my head to the sound of the dog eating out of its bowl,” she recalls. In the years since, the 39-year-old contemporary dancer and choreographer has made a career out of seeking what makes her vibrate: finding moves that feel right rather than rehearsed. She calls this “the immediate movement,” something so deeply ingrained in her being that she needs to act it out in order to describe it.

“It’s an instinctive movement, one you want to do right now, not just something you execute without knowing why. No, it’s like, right now I want to do this. Aargh!” she says with a growl, her body shaken by an invisible pull. “You have to feel it inside, it really comes from within somehow, and it’s… it’s real.” Though her busy schedule doesn’t allow for a face-to-face, she has agreed to the next best thing—FaceTime—aware that I might want to watch her answers as well as listen to them. “Yes, I’m very expressive,” she concedes.

As a performer, Motin has joined Madonna on tour, appeared on music videos for Robbie Williams and Jamiroquai, and danced for choreographers including Angelin Preljoçaj and Sylvain Groud. As a choreographer, she is best known in the English-speaking world for her collaboration with Christine and the Queens (the stage name of singer Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier), whose Chaleur Humaine tour she choreographed, as well as for her work on Dua Lipa’s “IDGAF” music video, which was nominated for best choreography at the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards. Her show Rouge, commissioned by Rambert, London’s legendary contemporary dance company, has been received with acclaim.1 She currently splits her time between choreographing the tour of Belgian pop sensation Angèle, working as an advisor on film sets, and preparing a show with her own dance company as an artist-in-residence at the theater in her native Saint-Lô, in Normandy. Working with both untrained and professional dancers doesn’t faze her. “I want to see humans on stage, not dancers,” she says. “Dance bores me, actually.”

Motin’s relationship to dancing has always been ambivalent. Growing up, she and her sister took ballet classes, but the rigidity of the classical training rapidly got on her nerves. She much preferred imitating Michael Jackson’s twists and hat tricks, or jumping into splits like James Brown, whose moves she studied on videotapes. She tried contemporary dance, but remained unimpressed, and only started enjoying herself after taking Afro Jazz dance classes at school.

With hip-hop, however, it was love at first sight. Motin was a teenager when she came across street dance workshops in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, where she lived with her mother at the time.2 She felt she’d finally found the right fit. “I was very angry as a child, for a long time. I didn’t want to get in line, I just wanted to offload, to evacuate that anger, to aaaah!” Motin grimaces with a snarl. “Hip-hop is a dance that allows you to do that. You’re there, you get in and, pah, pah, pah,” she punches the air, “you need your anger, you transform it and include that in your dance.”

Hip-hop wasn’t just an outlet for her ire. It was rigorous. It gave her a structure. She needed to practice the steps over and over again for her body to understand the movements. The way they should feel. The way they should flow. She enjoyed the technicality of the body wave, a groove which the French call “smurf.” She would break down each trick until she figured out how to perform it, like the windmill—one of the power moves of break dancing—which requires dancers to spin on the floor using their upper body strength alone: “You have to understand how to pull your leg and push on your elbow, otherwise you can’t do it, you know?” Motin says. “But there was something very rational about it, something that reassured me. I thought: Okay, I just need to work to get it right.”

In the late 1990s, rap music and the culture around it were far from mainstream in France. After school, Motin and a group of friends would train at the local mall, dance in the streets or venture to Châtelet-les Halles, the busiest transport intersection of Paris and the quickest link to the banlieues, then an unofficial meet-up spot for hip-hop battles. The competition was fierce. Yet to this day, Motin’s best memories as a dancer remain on the battleground. “I was terrified, and at the same time, when you win a battle, what happens in your body, it’s crazy… but when you fail, you pretend it’s all good.” She lets out a burst of laughter. “That was a bit much, actually. I’ve distanced myself from that now because I like to be in touch with my emotions—acting tough all the time ended up being a problem for me.”

By the time Motin entered university, where she studied literature and psychology, she had joined a professional dance company, Quality Street, as one of its only female members. Being white and a woman was never an issue in the French hip-hop scene, she insists: “In hip-hop, if you’re killing it, it doesn’t matter if you’re black, green, gay or trans. If you’ve done an amazing trick, then you’re amazing, that’s it. That’s what I like about it.” Still, in 2009, she created an all-female crew, Swaggers, in order to bring women together, and work off a different kind of energy.


1. Motin’s commission to choreograph for Rambert was a particularly profound accomplishment, because the company rarely works with so-called “commercial” choreographers. Rouge is a group piece devised largely through improvisation that explores how we regenerate energy when physically “in the red.”

2. In the 1990s, hip-hop grew influential in France. In 1997, the Marseille-based group IAM released L’école du Micro d’Argent which sold more than 1 million copies. IAM was known for its “pharaoism”—the rappers used references to Ancient Egypt to champion Arab and African identities at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment was high.

Motin’s career as a dancer quickly took off: She was cast in Spanish choreographer Blanca Li’s break dance film, Le Défi, in the early 2000s, after accompanying her then boyfriend to the auditions. She worked as a backup dancer on television as well as for a number of pop acts, and eventually landed work with choreographers who broadened her horizons, like Sylvain Groud, who, she says, made her realize she could dance to something other than hip-hop. Working with Angelin Preljoçaj, she was inspired by his storytelling, the way he envisioned a full show, not just dance steps.

What many consider the pinnacle of her career—dancing for Madonna—actually had her on the verge of quitting altogether. It was 2012. Motin had gone through the stringent audition process, and landed a coveted place on the Queen of Pop’s MDNA tour. She was impressed by the crew’s talent and blown away to perform in front of huge crowds day in and day out. Still, she struggled to find meaning in what she was doing. She felt trapped in the moves of hip-hop she’d trained so hard to master. It didn’t help that working for one of the world’s greatest pop stars meant there was no room for individuality. “I was really happy to be there, but I found myself dancing to choreography that bored me,” she says. “And I had to perform it 300 times, without being able to change anything, not even what I did with my little finger, so after a while, yes, it became painful. I realized I didn’t want to tell other people’s stories anymore.”

Coming back from tour, Motin felt she might never dance again. She knew she needed to reconnect with what moved her in order to start moving again. It took her a year. She listened to music that got under her skin, and let herself sway until she found new movements. Gestures that carried meaning because she hadn’t learned them; they oozed from her. The verdict was radical: She had to let go of hip-hop music in order to move forward. “I was locked inside of it, I couldn’t imagine anything new,” she says, circling her eye with her fist. “It was as if I were looking at things this way and then, pfffftttt.” Her hand bursts open, widening her field of vision.

This marked the start of Motin’s choreographing career. With Swaggers, her crew, she set out to “spill her guts on stage,” as she documented it in a 2013 blog post. And so her first show, In the Middle, was born. Its opening act set the tone: Motin, dressed in black, enters a dark stage and walks into a lone flash of light, while the intoxicating harmonies of “El Desierto,” by the late Mexican American folk singer Lhasa de Sela, fill the room. Suddenly, her body seems possessed, traversed by a magnetic tide pushing her back and forth. Each movement feels impulsive yet controlled, electric yet fluid, as if the waves of hip-hop entered the body of a flamenco dancer. Then, the performance becomes softer. Gradually, more light spots pepper the stage, illuminating other dancers, whose moves echo Motin’s. Their on-and-off synchronicity is hypnotic, until each performer breaks away from the group, each in turn taking the spotlight for a solo, a way to reclaim their individuality. “I do what I want to do, and that’s what hip-hop is about too,” says Motin. “It’s a life philosophy. I may no longer follow hip-hop movements, but I remain profoundly hip-hop. I go wherever my heart beats.”

Meeting Belgian musician Stromae did accelerate her heartbeat. So did working with Christine and the Queens. She describes both as visionary artists who conceive their shows as an experience beyond music. They want a say in every detail, be it the lights or the artistic direction, much like Motin does with her own shows. “With them, you know you can drop a choreography, and it will look good, because you think and work together,” she says. “Sometimes, when you’re not in sync with the artistic director, you look at your choreography and you’re like, Crap, this looks like a bad Italian TV show from the 1980s.”

“You need your anger, you transform it and include that in your dance.”

Her first time working with Stromae was choreographing the music video of “Papaoutai,” a song about growing up without his father, who was killed in the Rwandan genocide. They didn’t know each other. Motin filmed him doing improv, then showed him how he moved when he felt awkward. It was much more beautiful than when he tried to do something pretty, she argued. His body needed to reflect his inner state. In the video, Stromae, who is 6’3” and skinny, becomes a motionless mannequin who eventually breaks into an angry dance alongside his younger self. His long body, rattled by convulsions, occasionally shrinks to the ground, becoming the pain-stricken child described in the song. The dance only lasts 20 seconds, but each gesture conveys heartbreak.

Of Christine and the Queens, Motin praises that “she can be gross and fragile and graceful at once.” Seeing her dance gives you insight into her soul, she adds: “Dance itself doesn’t interest me. What I like about dance is watching people do it. I hate it when a dancer falls like a dancer. I want them to fall like humans do.” She approached choreographing Rouge the same way. Working with some of the best professionals in the industry, she wanted them to break from the mold, to stop performing like a corps de ballet. “I needed to let them exist as individuals,” she says.

Though she is in high demand and constantly traveling, Motin has now settled in Normandy, where she spent the first years of her life, and where she and her partner decided to raise their first child. The show she is preparing in Saint-Lô, a city of fewer than 20,000 residents, allows her once again to create something that is fully hers, working with eight dancers and an actor on stage. Sometimes, she says, she still feels nothing, when she’s dancing. Occasionally, she gets frustrated. And then, there are times when each part of her body feels alive, each movement gives her pleasure. She closes her eyes and rolls her head. “It’s wonderful. You’re in the moment and … you’re just a body, you feel what’s inside, it’s like you can become anything you want,” she whispers. “Whoa.”

“I like to be in touch with my emotions—acting tough all the time ended up being a problem for me.”

“I like to be in touch with my emotions—acting tough all the time ended up being a problem for me.”


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Thirty-six

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