‘I’m a lazy girl,” says Marion Motin, laughing at herself. The French choreographer is sitting back in her chair, smiling, dressed in a baggy tracksuit and mismatched earrings. She is laid-back, sure. But lazy? I don’t believe her.
This is a woman who created all the choreography for Christine and the Queens’ Chaleur Humaine tour in just 10 days. Who got through the notoriously gruelling audition process to dance on tour with Madonna. Who founded her own all-female hip-hop crew, Swaggers, 10 years ago, to show that women can win dance battles too (and they did).
She went from training with her friends every day after school at the mall to dancing with pop singers (Robbie Williams) and contemporary choreographers (Angelin Preljocaj), and choreographing music videos (Dua Lipa and Belgian singer Stromae as well as Christine). The 37-year-old is now creating her first piece for a contemporary dance company – a new commission for Rambert – and bringing her effortless cool and undeniable industriousness with her.
Even the way Motin talks is energetic. Her conversation comes powered and punctuated by bodily emphasis – a flourish of the arm, a lurch forward, all this energy punching to get out. The way energy moves through the body is at the core of her choreography. “Where in the body does this move come from, and where does it go?” asks Motin. “Do you project the energy out or keep it inside?”
In a short preview of the piece she’s making for Rambert, called Rouge, I see jolts of movement sent from the dancers’ hips through their jacking torsos into repetitive jags of their shoulders. Motin’s music industry background is clear in the pop phrasing, eight beats at a time, the dance all rhythm and riff, soundtracked by the hard-edged synth of Micka Luna’s score.
It’s accessible but unpredictable, which is very much Motin’s style. If you’ve seen the coolly confrontational dance moves of Dua Lipa’s IDGAF video, or the quirky, unshow-offy steps in the promo for Christine and the Queens’ single Tilted, you’ll have noticed they don’t look like other music videos – and certainly not the semi-clad, twerking women of pop cliche. Motin is just not interested in showing you something you’ve seen before.
“I don’t like to recognise a move,” she says. “When I see a dance move I know I’m like, why? I don’t want to see that. I prefer to see things I don’t already know.” A lot of commercial dance is just background filler. “Dance is everywhere today,” she says. “They want to sell a car or a bottle of water, they have dancers. It creates work for people, cool, but a lot of the time it doesn’t mean anything.”
Even working for an artist like Madonna, who loves dance and pushes it to the forefront of her live tours, you’re only ever providing extra hype for the star of the show. “The first show I did with Madonna, I was on stage and I looked at the audience and I was like: ‘What are they looking at?’” says Motin. “And I turned my head and I see Madonna and I’m like: ‘Oh yes, I forgot.’ The audience don’t give a fuck [about you]. But it was cool too.” I ask her about the show – it was 2012’s MDNA tour – and she’s stumped. “The audition for Madonna was really rough, but the tour? I remember everything around it but not the show,” she says. There was a lot of partying, she remembers that. “It was just having fun with my friends, it was crazy.”
When Motin is working with singers, she tries to go deeper with her choreography and find out what’s going on in their heads. In the case of Christine, she also brought her out of her shell on stage. “She was a bit shy with dance at first but she’s a hard worker so she learned really fast,” says Motin. “And the more time she spent with the dancers the more she got into it. She danced a lot and sweated and said ‘OK, my body’s getting transformed, shaped like a dancer’, and she loved it.”
When Motin was approached by Dua Lipa, she had no idea who the young Londoner was. “But my younger sister said, ‘Dua Lipa! She’s cool! You’ve got to do it!’” says Motin. “And she is cool,” she smiles. “She doesn’t really know how to move, she doesn’t have the same knowledge in the body as Christine, but she’s impressive because she doesn’t care. She just goes for it.” You wouldn’t think from watching the video, incidentally, that Dua Lipa is not a great dancer, but that’s part of the art of a good choreographer.
The dancers Motin is working with now at Rambert, however, really do know what they’re doing. “They are really high level,” she says. “It’s so easy for me. I say: ‘OK, do this,’ and they do it. They understand. And they get close to what I want really fast. I apologise to my hip-hop friends but there’s a lot of difference between contemporary and hip-hop dancers when it comes to being hard workers. We work hard for ourselves,” she adds, “but in a company …” she mimes getting her phone out and absent-mindedly scrolling.
Motin’s premise for Rouge, although you won’t see it acted out so literally in the performance, is a group of people escaping a burning building with only what they have on them. “It’s about how to keep going with the only thing you really have, which is you, your energy and what you are,” she says.
In the same way that Motin always wants to get inside a pop singer’s head, she is interested in the personalities of each of the dancers she’s working with at Rambert. She wants to get to the core of the people in front of her, “not as a dancer, but who they really are,” she says. “I prefer to see human behaviour more than dance. What I love as a choreographer is touching a soul.”