Zoom, November 2021
I am a world renowned break dancer, ranking 19 in the world at the ‘Breaking for Gold’ Olympic event in China 2019. I won the Romanian national title at Red Bull BC One, (the world’s most prestigious one-on-one breaking competition), three years in a row (2014-16). I am a positive, passionate, and determined dancer & choreographer with over 15 years of experience. My background is in breaking - I fuse this with hiphop and contemporary & experimental dance, delivering captivating indoor & outdoor dance performances and theatre productions, which are at once psychological and celebratory. These include: One% - a collaboration with O’Driscoll Collective, Traum - a collaboration with Theatre Absolute, Ink - a theatre piece produced by hip hop dancer/choreographer/theatre maker Si Rawlinson and Irreversible with Andrei Roman. I have taught classes at Dance Exchange in Birmingham, and am one of the 15 emerging leaders selected by Coventry City of Culture 2021 on their Leadership Development Programme, and one of the Six Young Creatives involved in the creative development of the City of Culture 2021 Signature Event.
IA: Could you introduce yourself and describe what it is that you do?
MM: My name is Marius Mates, I'm a breaker and have been a breaker for the past 15 years. I own a dance company called break dots - which opened in 2019 - and I also work full time.
IA: The idea of crews and kinship are really prevalent in Hip Hop and breaking. With the different crews that you've been in and part of, could you talk a little bit about the idea of kinship and the idea of a family that you choose?
MM: Sure. I've been through many crews since I started breaking. I remember back home, I was part of...when I started, I started by myself, just looking at videos and practicing in my room, but I didn't know there was a crew in my city that was doing this already. So I went to a festival and saw some guys breaking there who were part of a crew. I trained with them and I was like, OK, can I join you guys for practice? And then they took me under their wings and taught me a lot of things, things that I didn't see by myself training in my room. I created relations with these people and we realised that we're on the same wavelength, especially with dancing...I feel like we all get attracted to this art form because there’s something that connects us. It creates a unison and we attract each other somehow. The crew was really easy going and I was able to get on with everybody, they helped me a lot. That's how I became part of that crew. We started doing shows together and started to hang out together, that relationship helped my breaking, it helped me personally and extended my views about what this dance is about. It's really important that I met these guys...but then, like any other group of people, towards the end, when we matured - when we're kids, we don't really care - when you mature everyone has their own life. They had to get a job or a girlfriend and they stopped breaking. That mindset and the separating, it didn't feel like it was part of this art form anymore. So that's how that crew broke up and from the few people that were left we created a new crew. So it was like, we're not part of that one anymore, we don't believe in the same things that the pioneers of that crew believed - they’ve left breaking - for us kids, we wanted something fresh, we wanted something new and so we created another crew called Pengu Fury. It was four of us, a friendship between four guys - three from my city and one from a different part of the country - and we started breaking together. We had that crew mentality again, enjoying travelling and doing all sorts of events and shows, we were communicating with each other, showing documentaries and videos that would help us progress and we were really embedded in this art form as much as we could. But again, it comes to an end...one of the guys left to go to a different country and we were left as three breakers...at that point I decided to leave Romania and move to the UK in 2010...and the crew dispersed. I was by myself when I came to UK and I joined MDK in 2011. I started looking for places to practice and I met some people who were more serious than others about the art form...because I was loyal and wanted to learn more...I wanted to learn from people that understood the art form better. We started busking together and hanging out and this is how I joined MDK. Since then, I stayed with this crew and because of my past experiences, I've learned...the same thing happened with MDK, you had people that separated because of life, they wanted to be more focused on their careers, their jobs, they weren’t travelling as much and some of them had kids...so it's understandable, if it's not in your heart completely, you can’t do this for your entire life. I decided to stay in the crew, help other people join and the relations I've created with those people - even if they're not breaking anymore - they’re still there, the friendship is there and the connection is there. We help each other and support each other in different ways. With the people that are still active, we try to represent the crew as much as we can, we try to carry on and leave a legacy, we try to help youngsters who are just starting to understand this concept of a crew and how important it is to have other people around you that believe in the same thing...a crew helps you progress faster. It helps if you have someone there. If you don't know something, you can just go and ask. It's like a second family...I think if I hadn't been part of these crews in the past, I wouldn't be the person that I am today and my journey wouldn't have come as far. I'm sure I wouldn't have progressed or learned this much, because with a crew comes opportunities as well. Crews are friendship, unity, helping each other and progression.
IA: You mentioned in your second crew you were sharing videos and documentaries. What were some of those things that you were sharing in terms of building your knowledge?
MM: It was mainly US documentaries. When Tribal was a thing, they were doing a lot of documentaries on breaking and the role of Hip Hop culture in the US. Actually this is what made me start in the first place, it was this Tribal documentary that I saw...one of my classmates had the DVD and he gave it to me and I was so impressed when I saw the breakers get down...the lifestyle, the energy, I was like, I want to be them. I want to be like them...especially where I was born...the neighbourhood I was born in, a block of flats...you didn't really have anything to do outside of school. There wasn't a big Hip Hop culture back home...everyone was listening to Eminem and Tupac, they were dressing with loose clothing and snapbacks...but seeing this documentary and seeing them break...I had that energy. I still think I probably have ADHD or something because I have that energy inside me where I want to do lots of things. It just spoke to me straight away. For me it was really important to have videos to learn about the culture and to learn about the music - one of the guys in the crew was a DJ - so he was researching a lot of the bands at the time, he was making mixes for us to train with and was into Fusik, which is still one of my favourite bands...when I hear the drums and the way they create music...I’m having that vision of the documentaries that I was watching...I was trying to replicate that, not knowing exactly what that was but I understood the foundations and the history behind it all. I saw the energy in that video and that's what made me start.
IA: The idea of generational hierarchy and lineage is really present in Hip Hop and breaking. Could you talk a little bit about your own Hip Hop and breaking lineages?
MM: In the past we were listening to the people that had been breaking the longest or who were part of the culture the longest because they had the most knowledge and the most experience...we would listen to these people and think they were right all the time. Whichever history or experiences that they had, that's what we would get from them...and this is how we would grow. Even if that experience wasn't always right, maybe they had a bad experience or they learnt from that...they passed that onto us too. It wasn’t always a positive thing. That's how I look at these guys, our pioneers and OGs. But when I was looking at videos and thinking of those people in the videos, they were the original pioneers. You'd have the guy that has the moves, or you would have the famous guy in the crew - I wanted to be him - you'd have the person with the information, the guy that had to book events or manage the crew. It was all unintentional. There was nothing set in stone, it wasn’t like, you'll be doing this, you'll be doing that, it was a natural process...but for me, it's been really helpful to pinpoint those people and see what everyone's strengths are and what I can get from them in order for me to grow. When I came to UK and I was part of MDK, I met Marso who was one of the oldest members and you had OGs like Big Ben...Nene (Nehemiah Smith) is a breaker and tap dancer from Birmingham who has been doing it for years and years and years - he's got a lot of knowledge about top rock and he's got that foundational knowledge that I didn't have at home - I only got that from videos. I didn't know exactly what he meant but he told me about the history, he told me about a lot of things that made me appreciate the art form even more. Marso would give me the history of Birmingham, how he was teaching back in the day and who he was teaching in the crew and who's who...you begin to learn more about the community and the people around you. He helped me because he saw some talent in me...he brought me into some of his shows and then I got into the theatre world. I learned a completely different world and I got immersed into this Hip Hop theatre thing that I couldn't see in breaking. Marso took me to do some of his Hip Hop theatre shows and this was where I learned about the contemporary and Hip Hop theatre world - which made my breaking even better. My understanding about movement elevated a lot...my perception about breaking was...I was getting a little bored with it because it was always the same thing, same studio, same training spots, same people...so I was like, what else can you do? There were opportunities with breaking back then, but there are so many more today.
IA: Tell me about B-boy One Run.
MM: Oh. One Run...I've always tried to find myself a nickname, but you don't find yourself a nickname in breaking, someone else gives it to you, right? But because no one gave me a nickname I thought am I the only one in the breaking community that doesn’t have a nickname? Everyone has one. Someone tried to call me Shorty because I'm really short, but that was already taken by one of my mates. I was like, I'm not gonna get that one. So I decided to stay with Marius for a couple of years. When I started doing a lot of UK competitions, when I was really focused on training - I was going running all the time and I was trying to be as athletical as possible - I wanted my body to be ready for every week, for every competition and I was really dedicating everything to it...and I was starting to win. In the beginning I wasn't qualifying much so I created this set that made me qualify everywhere. Once I started qualifying I started winning as well, so I said I just need one set, one run and I'm sure I'll do better. I'll go further in the competition...but I just need people to qualify me, I need people to see me, see what I can do and who I am through my dancing. So I decided to call myself One Run because one run was all I needed to prove myself...that stayed for a while, but then it disappeared and now I'm back to Marius.
IA: In terms of the people in your network and orbit, who are the three people who support, feed and nourish you?
MM: I would say the person that has had the most impact on my journey is Marso. Mickael Marso Riviere. He was the first one to offer me theatre work and he trained me within that world. He showed me what the world is about, he helped me understand Hip Hop theatre in a different way and he helped me train for competitions. He obviously saw something in me and he helped me a lot in the beginning. I would say the second person is two people...Julia Negus and Chris O'Connell from Coventry who own Theatre Absolute. When I was looking for training spots in Coventry I was training outside. When I was studying at uni I didn't have anywhere to train...I had access to one day a week in the sports hall in Coventry but I wanted to train professionally. I wanted to dedicate myself every day to breaking, so I would train at midnight or 1am outside somewhere in the city, I’d find a place and train regardless of how cold or warm it was. This wasn’t a choice - because I asked around a lot - but no one took me seriously and I had no replies. Julia and Chris were the only people to say, yeah, come in, train and bring your lino. I didn't have any money at that point and they didn't charge me...as long as I kept the place clean they trusted me to train in the theatre. I started to become an associate with that theatre, we started working together and we created more shows - one of my own shows, the first Hip Hop theatre I made was there - a 15 minute piece called Traum. That had a big impact on me, on my skills and my abilities in the industry. The next person is Jamaal O’Driscoll, he was part of MDK after me, he's younger than me. But I saw him since he was a teenager and he worked his way up...he's really dedicated to this and he motivates me. He's got the right energy and we both feed off each other...I'm getting quite old and he's getting quite old as well, but we motivate each other to be consistent and work on our longevity. We have the same aspirations...we want to discover ourselves in terms of movement, dance, creation and artistry. Not just breaking, but everything around it as well. We motivate each other by training, sending each other clips, training together, going to competitions, creating moves and talking about what does it mean to be original.
IA: Paris 2024. Breaking. What are your thoughts?
MM: Oooh. First of all I wish it would have come earlier, when I was a bit younger because I could have done more. I think it's a great opportunity, but I have mixed feelings. It's a great opportunity because breaking is starting to get the attention and the respect that it deserves, but I'm not so sure about it because of the future, of where this will go. I don't have a lot of information about gymnastics...but from what I heard about gymnastics back in the day was it wasn't as constrained or as structured as it is today. It was more like free movement, gymnastics is kind of similar to breaking...but now it has become this structured and contained thing and I'm scared that breaking could do something similar. This uniform learning and process of movement, having clubs and having coaches teaching the same moves...so if you have a one hand airflare, that will become...10 points for that, because that's the move that everyone's trying to get. So everyone's gonna learn that move because it's gonna score the highest. That's what I'm scared of...of breaking going from this natural, organic, expressive art to something that's more specific and something you do to tick boxes and gather points. It's going to lose that free expression that people had back in the day. Once you start having people coaching you one to one...coaches might not allow you that freedom to discover things by yourself, discover who you are, discover your style and find a way to move. That's what I'm scared of. But otherwise, I feel like it's a really, really good thing. Breakers are starting to get sponsorship - which is something that I hadn't heard of before - if we have these different brands looking into sponsoring a team or a breaking club, we didn't have any of that before either. Then there's a judging system that has been created which is going to benefit the culture in a way...it depends on what this judging system is. But I know the people that are creating this judging system know what they're doing, they've been pioneers for many years, so I trust the process as a simple breaker that's part of this community. I feel like these people will do the right thing by us. I took part in the national breaking cup this weekend in Romania. So, if I didn't support the movement I wouldn't go to their events or be part of it. I think it’s a great thing, but I wish I was younger and had the energy that I had five years ago. I feel like the kids who are starting now have these opportunities and they'll progress much faster, they'll become better breakers and they will be more financially sustainable. Even their parents can see a future in this because it will be showcased everywhere and has become this big thing.
IA: One of the things about the Olympics is about representing a flag, representing your country and nation. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the idea of nationalism at that Olympic level versus hyperlocality - crews are about a city or even a specific postcode within a city. What are your thoughts on the idea of nationalism, localism and representing a flag?
MM: That's a good question. I think representing a flag comes with a lot of pressure. Being local is easier...you have the crew that you know, you're in a local community, a local family and everyone knows everyone. Once you represent a flag or have this nationalism you take on the views of a whole country, a bigger thing. You have a lot of different people with a lot of different opinions about who you are, who are thinking is this the right person to represent us? You know, like, why is he talking? Or why is he doing something in my name when I don't agree with it. It comes with a lot more political views and the pressure is 1000% higher than representing your crew. Yes the pressure is there in a crew, but if something happens, you know that you have that support system, if you lose a battle, you come back, hey it’s fine there's always another go...but when you represent the flag, when you represent on a national level, that's a different history...because people can see you as a failure if you don't do as good as the expectations they had for you. It's a good thing, but it's a bad thing at the same time. I guess it depends on who's representing the flag and how they're representing the nationality that they have. For me it's difficult because half of my heart is back home and half of my heart is here. I've learned so much in the UK, but even now, if I want to go back to Romania, I wouldn't fit in because I've taken so much from UK, from the culture here, my friends, the mentality...I think it is so different than what people my age that grew up in my country would think and see, the way we see life is different. I'm thinking from two perspectives. But in a way, that’s why I decided to go back home and do the breaking cup nationally...I thought the UK already has enough good people to represent and I wanted to raise the bar a bit back home, to get them to work a bit harder and try to represent the country as good as possible. So maybe if I do well the federation back home will get more funding for B-boys and the community...I don't really need any of that, I just want the community to grow because there's not as many opportunities in Romania. So for me, that nationality and the representation of the flag comes from trying to help my community as much as possible, trying to take that flag with me and represent it as well as possible throughout the world. Reputations can be built that way and people will start having an opinion or a view about that flag and that nationality depending on how well you carry yourself and how well you represent yourself internationally. If you let other peoples opinion about you solidify on you then that can be a bad thing...it can crush and ruin you. It all depends on the mentality that you have and the reasons you’re doing it.
IA: Can you talk a bit about your relationship with Coventry?
MM: Yes. Coventry is my second home now. This is the first city that I came to back in September 2010, I came here to study and stayed. Everyone says that whoever comes to Coventry...there's a magnet or attraction that the city has and it keeps international people here. I think the city represents who I am...I feel for the city as well, because it was the first city that was bombed during World War Two and it raised from the ashes like a phoenix. I stopped breaking for a bit before I came here and I feel like it represents me as well...I tried to start breaking again and made a promise to myself that I will become better at this and I'll not stop until I feel content with what I've achieved in terms of movement, in terms of competitions and until I learn as much as I can from it. A connection is really vital to the city that you live in and I managed to meet a lot of good people here that would support each other and move things forward - artists and different organisations. It's my home now...and the people that I've met make it my home and make it feel like home too. It's very diverse and it has a lot to give, especially since it's been the City of Culture in 2021. The city has kept proving itself, that we're here and we're here to stay and we're gonna be better...I want to be part of that story and that history.
IA: You've been involved in many projects through the City of Culture. The trail riders and the parkour heads, you were the only Hip Hop artist as part of the creative team, the leadership programme, Dancing Bodies. Can you talk a little bit about those projects and what you've got out of them?
MM: Yeah sure. I was involved with a lot of different projects and still am. In the beginning I didn't really know what the City of Culture was and what it would represent for us as artists to be honest. I thought there's going to be this huge funding, but big organisations will take it again...the artist is at the bottom, they will probably get some breadcrumbs and be involved in one or two projects and then it disappears, so I didn't try to get involved...it was my missus who was the one that saw an application for the leadership programme and she encouraged me...you should go, you should be part of this, you're doing amazing things. Three years ago I was in a place in my journey when I wasn't really sure what I should do or where I should go...I didn't really know myself anymore. So I said, OK, let's apply and see what happens. I applied, we went through some tests and auditions, we did some interviews and a bit of teamwork...out of over 200 people they selected 15 to be part of this leadership programme and I was one of those 15. I was really impressed because I’m not really successful in things like that...I was doing auditions before with dance and I'd managed to be shortlisted but never actually get it. So I thought this is a good thing for me, I want to see and understand what a leader is, or what leadership is about...I want to learn about other people, the mentors and the speakers that are going to talk to us because I'm curious to see what's on the other side. I've been a performer all my life and I've been dancing for other people but I want to see what's on the other side, what is the type of mentality and the type of skills that I need? Can I actually do it? Can I help other people? It's great that I received the leadership programme, because then I started applying for more things...I felt like why not? If this was successful, maybe I'll be successful in other things. So I kept applying and I kept being successful. It was challenging as well because I wasn't sure if I should apply for some of the applications...they were looking at things where you have to be creative and talk about ideas and talk with other people...things that were outside my breaking or dancing experience. So when I applied, I wasn't really sure...should I do this because I've never done this before? I was getting out of my comfort zone a little bit...but I said, let's see what happens, I want to learn new skills - it's good for me - it's healthy. I was also part of the six young creatives who delivered the opening ceremony for Coventry 2021 as part of an organisation called Coventry Moves - that was really insightful. We were in Zoom meetings talking about our art forms, our ideas for Coventry, what it can look like for us and what we represented. A lot of our ideas were implemented in the opening ceremony...it was amazing to be part of the process and see your ideas solidify and take life. This gave me a sense of confidence because I never knew that I can think of something like that...but having the team, having the potential and finances to make it happen, I was like, wow, this is great, you can actually think of something and then that's created in front of you. It gave me the fire to do more projects like that, be open minded and see how I can fit in within those projects or how I can help and bring in my expertise to make it better, to show them something new and a different way of thinking. Through breaking and being part of the Hip Hop community I've learned things that some other people don’t know or created a way of thinking that some other people want. I got to meet Rosa Cisneros and we did Dancing Bodies, she did a documentary about me where I had to learn how to film, interview and edit - I was doing a bit of editing and filming, but as a hobby - this was the first project where I had to do something concrete and create a documentary by myself. I really enjoyed being part of that process and I've learnt so much from from that project. I've had the opportunity to work with Foleshill Community Centre where I delivered some classes and was part of this programme with the kids there, which I really loved as well. Seeing the new generation, seeing a different side of Coventry and seeing kids loving moving and loving breaking with a smile on their faces. The talent that some of the kids had...I was really impressed and thought this should happen more often in Coventry, people should teach more. Part of my aim is to focus on teaching in the future, but I want to do it in a way that's going to retain some of those kids within dancing and within breaking...I don't think at the moment that exists yet, besides delivering a class every Thursday, but if you don't have a set programme or schedule like the education system and show how these kids they can go further and earn money or be financially sustainable from it, then it really has no future unless they discover it themselves. How do they keep motivated to get that level where they understand how they can create something from this for themselves, from this dance? So I thought, I'm gonna sit back, see how other people do it right and develop a programme, an educational programme - not just around breaking, but a lot of a lot of other things as well - a curriculum. I'm trying to achieve that at the moment, but I've been so busy and have so many projects and ideas in my mind. From every project that I’ve involved in in the past two years, I've learned so much. I've taken something from each project, ideas that I can focus on which gives me scope...or a future to look forward to, not just from a performance perspective, but from a leadership perspective. Creating opportunities, thinking how I can help the community locally and nationally, what can I bring to the table? How can I make it fruitful for other people?
IA: How do you consider your own archive? How do you document the things you do and what is the legacy that you want to leave?
MM: I feel like archiving is such an important subject that not everyone is talking about. When I was doing competitions or going to a battle - even if I wasn't going further - any video that I would have from that competition, or any recollection or memory, I would take that video and edit it and put it somewhere safe. I would then study those videos and look exactly how I moved. I always thought if I watch myself on videos, you always look worse on videos compared to how you look in real life...this is what I feel like when I battle...I would come home and be like, man, it didn't feel that way, it felt so much better when I was there, so I said if I can make it look good on video then it's gonna look good in real life. I started gathering all the videos and I was looking at myself and I was like, yeah, that doesn't look right or I did something wrong. I need to change that. The idea of saving the video, looking back, studying it and learning from it, that's a structure and a process that everyone should learn from. I still have all those videos...I probably have hard drives full of them. If I go back now and look at them, it will bring so many memories and I'll learn so much from from them. This has been important for certain people...even Jamaal...we had a conversation a few months back and he was saying how he remembers me saying some stuff about breaking, philosophical stuff about how my life is and how I feel about certain things. He memorised those things and he said, when you said that, for me as a kid at the time, it meant so much. It made me think...that's so powerful. Something that I said, that I don't even remember now, it had this huge impact on this person and he remembers it like it was yesterday. So I feel like putting things on paper, if you have any ideas, write them down, you never know when you can use them again or when someone can get inspired from them. Historically, it's so important if you want to leave a legacy...it's like, you see me now, but if I had nothing behind me or had no digital footprint, how can I prove I am the person I say I am? People would think I'm crazy if there was no Internet or if there was none of that...I would meet you for the first time and say I've been breaking for this many years, I'm a breaking champion, I’ve done theatre shows, I met Prince Charles as part of this and people could be like this guy's crazy. So having this and being able to show that, having proof is...it's making organisations and making historians take you seriously - which is an important thing especially in breaking where it's not as well known. A lot of the pioneers are arguing between themselves, like no I did that first, but back in ‘84 this happened and this crew was there. Yeah, but how can you prove it? Unless you have that proof, an image, some text or writing, you're not really able to prove that and historically it’s not going to be remembered. It's important to have those people that can remember it, to tell it to people who aren't here anymore, even if it's something that they heard from someone else and someone else heard it from someone else. It's important to write things down. Imagine if we would all come together and connect the pieces...connect the puzzle together. That would be so powerful, imagine having a proper history about this dance and these names...the community and the dance and Hip Hop culture would become even bigger than it is at the moment. We would be able to create those programmes that we all want to see and be able to help the new generation...and help ourselves. But because we don't have this archiving, because we don't have a history as strong as we want it to be...you’re creating it now with the almanac, people are starting to talk about it more, we have the Internet which will help us gather other information and talk to each...we're starting to get there in a way. If I get inspired I write my ideas down. Anything that I want to express as well, if I can do it through movement or in any other way, I just try to record everything, maybe that's not a good thing. I have so many hard drives that I'm scared to open them because I don't know who's gonna clean them up. But later on when I'm not gonna break or I'm gonna have all the time in the world I'm gonna take the dust out, put them in the PC - I don't even know if I'll need a USB, maybe they will disappear - and I'll plug them in and enjoy them.
IA: What was the first Hip Hop theatre work that you saw?
MM: I'm trying to understand if what I saw was Hip Hop theatre or not. When I started breaking I was part of this crew - House of Culture - and we were doing shows for high school kids. Because we were doing shows for different high schools in the city, we were getting a free practice location. We were inspired by Expression Crew and they had a show called The Marionette Show where they were wearing masks...I think that was one of the first Hip Hop theatre shows I saw, that was back in 2006 / 2007 done by a breaking crew. Obviously you have Battle of the Year and I feel like some of the shows, most of the shows there were Hip Hop theatre because they were showcasing skills in a different way. You have the normal breaking show, top rock, get downs and then routines etc, but Expression Crew were adding elements to it, they were adding masks and a story line which was different and we were really inspired by that. When I started doing shows with them, it was quite early within my breaking career, we'd started doing shows, so I didn’t start my breaking by going to competitions, the first thing that I did was being part of the show. I remember The Marionette Show from Expression Crew...it inspired me and changed the game in terms of what I understood about art and movement. I understood from an early point that it's not just breaking...there's more to it, more to the movement I am doing...it can be anything. It can be expressed in a story line, or if I do something else, I can make this person understand what I'm trying to express. That was a powerful understanding.
IA: Tell me about One%
MM: One% is done through the O’Driscoll Collective. Jamaal asked me to be part of that show...although it's his, when he told me what this piece was about, it spoke strongly to both of our stories and I was really touched by that. Every time we've done this show it’s a different piece...we wanted to show raw breaking in Hip Hop theatre. It was originally done as an outdoor piece, on concrete with no flooring, nothing else...just music. It's important for the culture because we're trying to showcase something, we’re trying to bring something...the rawness of breaking. We’re trying to say that even with breaking movement...it doesn't have to be done in a contemporary way to have a story...it can be done in its original form and shape and we can tell a story by just doing that. We're trying to look at making it longer, but at the same time, we feel like it's a piece on its own and we should leave it as it is. From what Jamaal told me, he's never tried to sell that piece, so we’ve been booked by people that heard of it or saw it, which is another thing that is amazing. We weren’t trying to make anything from it, financially or anything, it was just about us breaking and if people feel something from that piece, it's fine. We’re trying to have it as a piece that grows organically without us forcing anything.
IA: You've been in a number of other Hip Hop theatre works, I'm going to give you three titles and I’d like a memory from each of them. Ink
MM: Ink was something that was created from scratch and I was part of the early process...and it went through a lot of changes. I remember when we did it in Reading. We were ready for it, but we weren't. Everything was so last minute and a lot of the movement was changing. Si wanted to add ink...we had the bamboo in the show and we were doing movement with the bamboo too. I just remember running like crazy and being late to the show...the bamboo is falling on the floor, then we had to come back and we were like, how are we going to do this? We had to go in the studio, literally one minute before going on stage and we were still repeating some of the movements and trying to manage it...but it actually went quite well in the end. I remember it being really hectic, but because we were all strong dancers, we managed to take control of the situation and once we were on stage and had done it, it was really, really good show. Even though some of the bits were freestyle. I think Si used some of the freestyle moments and implemented it in the next phase of the show. The piece grew like that. I remember how hectic it was...I feel like coming from breaking where I was always late to things or doing things last minute, I thought that would never happen in the theatre world. But actually, it does happen and it happens a lot.
MM: Speakeasy. Wow. That was a piece that changed my perspective on a lot of things and I was really honoured to be part of the piece. When Robbie took me in I'd never done a show like that before, one with so many different styles of dancing and movement. It was one of the first shows where I didn't know a lot of the people personally...I didn't know the dancers on a one to one level. I knew of them, had seen them perform...but when you do a theatre piece it is so different compared to competitions where you see someone and then go back home. In a theatre piece you need to share the same studio space with these people, learn about their lives, learn who they are and share experiences. The dancing becomes much more personable and you become much more personal towards each other. We learned so quickly about our dancing, we knew exactly what everyone was doing in the show, how we could help each other and how we would cover for each other if something happens. Speakeasy was one of those shows where I didn't want it to finish. I enjoyed it that much and it was fun to work on. There were some breakers, but breakers that had a different mentality...the way we looked at dance was from an original perspective. That's where I feel I learned from the most in terms of Hip Hop theatre. Robbie really helped me a lot within that process, he spent a lot of time with me one on one before I was part of the show...to teach me some of the movement, some choreography and looking at how I moved. Speakeasy will always have a place in my heart.
IA: The final one is ConsuMorphosis.
MM: Oh wow. ConsuMorphosis. That was another really, really good show...I remember talking with Marso about it and him explaining the idea behind it, how we all consume in the world, being in this state of consumerism and how we're damaging the planet. It was in the early stages where it was starting to become a trend and it got all over the news. I was feeling very strongly about those things as well and I was eager to be part of the show...then I found out who else was going to be in the show and I was even more excited...Dickson, Salah, Si and Marso. Having these strong dancers - I was only at the beginning of my Hip Hop theatre career, this was maybe my second show - I was the least experienced dancer out of everyone and I was like a kid in a candy shop. When I was in the studio I just wanted to learn from everyone because they all had this strong movement and strong understanding about dancing...I was like, teach me some more. I was doing my part of the choreography and they kept help helping me and I appreciated this so much. I thought this is gonna stay with me forever, everything that those guys taught me. It was educational for me because I never studied dance and you had people in that studio that had studied it, who came from a different perspective and see the world differently.
IA: Migration, homelessness and refugees are themes that you've been exploring for a long time, through Irreversible, through Traum and your recent work with the refugee and migrant centre. Can you talk about why those themes are important to you and why you keep coming back to them?
MM: The reason for me coming to another country...I think about it every day, it's what pushed me...why do I want to go to another country? What are the views? What do I feel like? Why? I understood that people leave their countries for different reasons and some have it worse than others, some move because they need a different way of living or they want to have a different experience. But whatever makes you move to another country, what people can't understand who haven't done that is you need to adapt to a different culture...you need to adapt to different perspectives and you need to start to speak a different language. Even normal jokes are different in my country than they are here. That had a massive impact on me because I understood that I am a different person because of all of this. The way I speak, the way I express myself, who I am and the way I think about things is because I moved and I migrated to another country. The struggles that I went through to learn all of these things...I had to give so much of who I am to learn those things which was very impactful. That's why when I'm saying if I go back home now, I won't understand the person next to me because our experiences are different or the way I think, I'm in a different system. I can only think of the people that weren't able to adapt this quickly, but they have no choice than to stay here and can’t go back home. It’s like a punishment for them. I'm trying to talk about these things and create an awareness around it. This theme is so important to me because it's who I am...talking about homelessness, for example, I was always thinking, OK, what is the worst that can happen to me? Because I wanted to break but I wasn't making any money from it, so I could easily be homeless. I was passing those people on the street and I would think, I could be like them anytime, so I was trying to understand them better and be human with them. I didn't want to be arrogant or...I don't have more than you, you don't have more than me, we're kind of equal. We're both human beings and we can exchange thoughts and we can talk about things. I found out that a lot of people that are homeless are really smart and I'm like, how are you not...you could easily be the CEO of a company, you can easily do things...but that discrepancy in society and what people have and don't have materialistically speaking...I still can’t understand why we have to go through all of that, why can't we just be human and all live together. I know it's a utopian view that I'm describing, but for me, it has a lot of impact, seeing homeless people who are really struggling. By doing Irreversible I wanted to showcase that we're all equal, we're all human beings, although in that case there was a negative twist...although we want something good for each other, being put in a desperate position we take desperate measures for certain things and I was trying to get to a conclusion to this idea that I have, or this feeling, this rationalisation about homelessness and those discrepancies in the world. I think me moving from another country and speaking to those people, I can really relate to their stories, so I'm trying to show what I've gone through and if you bring awareness to things then you can make other people understand you. Some people close themselves down because they can't express their ideas - which is so simple for people that speak the same language - but for those people who cannot express it, imagine what it’s like in their head...they’re just living there all the time, they can’t do anything about it. But giving them an opportunity or saying to them, you can write, you can move, you can work on things or sculpt things - any artistic craft that you can do, you can express those thoughts and feelings. I'm just trying to open doors for people to say, look. I express myself doing those shows or creating this type of movement or story but without saying anything. It's pure expression. I was surprised when I was doing Traum, it had a huge impact on people in the audience...they started to cry and they spoke to me about their nanny or coming to England back in the day, but she's not in this country now, that piece reminded them of their nan and what she went through...for her to be here and to be in the position that she's in. When I was doing this work and getting this feedback, I was like, wow, I actually told this story and people connected to it. How powerful is that? People would connect with it more now than if I started to speak because 10 years ago I didn't have the same level of English that I have now. But I was able to express myself through movement. Through my movement people understood me better. It’s something that I feel really strongly about and will try and explore even further.
IA: Battling - an entirely different mindset and attitude to the Hip Hop theatre. From winning Red Bull BC One Romania three times, to trips to China and the breaking cup last weekend. Can you talk to me about the psychology of breaking for you and what mindset you're in when you go into those spaces?
MM: Ooh. Battling is different game. When I started battling for the first time I realised that you can actually transcend into a different world, into a different person...it’s like you're not you anymore. I saw a lot of people, when speaking to them face to face being really shy, but when they go and battle, they're in their round, they transcend to a completely different person. If I would watch that person dance in a battle, I wouldn't think it’s the person that they actually are in real life face. That person who was so aggressive when they were battling, their movement was so strong and heavy and when you come out of the battle, they’re the softest person ever. My experience with battling is trying to reach that level of transcendence every time, sometimes you go into that state of mind, but not always. I try to reach that level every time I battle...when you battle it’s not just about two people facing each other, showcasing moves, because then there would be no connection and this community wouldn't exist. It's not something superficial, when you battle, you enter a different person, it's almost like you summon this creature out of you when you battle under the lights with all people looking at you. You have the judges, the DJ and the music - it’s so ritualistic, it's almost unreal. You have no choice other than to go somewhere else in your mind, otherwise the audience wouldn't connect to what you're doing. For me that relationship is so strong, it's almost like a drug, you always want to go, you want to feed your dopamine and you always want to go into that world. It's like meditation. A different world that makes you feel so good you don't want to leave. That's why battling is so addictive, I can't stop doing it. I want to do it even more on an international level and that's why I train so hard for it. Every time I go to an international battle I want to have those experiences. What's more important is when you find an opponent that goes into that world, you have the same mentality and state of mind...it's like a sharing experience and it isn’t a battle anymore. It's something that you're both creating on the spot, you're creating a history, creating a moment, creating something that's unique and it’ll stay there forever...either in my mind or on video. Even when the battle finishes, sometimes you have to take a few minutes to re-find yourself and let everything settle down, so you're back to the person that you were before you battled. It's so strange, I can't explain it. You become someone else and it’s amazing that you can actually do that.
IA: If you're a breaking nerd, what are the things that really get you excited? Is it threading, the blow ups, the style? Talk to me about the niche mechanics of breaking.
MM: You know how I was telling you about battles...well for me there's a certain thing about training that's similar, but it’s in a different way. Training for me is more of an escape...I train by myself a lot of the time now and it's so easy to get bored if you train a lot. So when I train, I start on my back, not do anything, put the music on, see what happens and then go from there. If I want to move on the ground, move my hands or do some threading...I do that. It's a process for me which is growing with each session. If I train by myself and I’m not training for a battle I enjoy it more because I don't have that pressure of being like, in two three weeks I’ve got to practice my rounds and practice my power moves because I know I can easily screw up when I get there if I don't do that. I don't always go into that state of mind where I can just battle and be the greatest, do the best moves that I can and win those battles...I know that I need to have set stuff that I am doing for battles, I’ve got to train that in order to maintain it. When I don't train for battles, I love being in the moment, listening to the music and just seeing what it makes me do and how it makes me move. If I were to be a breaking nerd, I think variations of power moves are my favourite...I always want to learn all the possible variations that I can do in flares and windmills...if I trade my hand or chair freeze or 1.5s. Doing difficult movements and then doing variations of those movements has always impressed me...how can you thread your leg whilst you're doing a 1.5. I love how Dyzee...how he created threading in his footwork and the way he presents it is so powerful and strong. Sometimes I feel like practicing footwork or practicing threads, it really depends on the day...even simple movement on a beat and being with the music completely from start to end - no matter what you do, if you have the right shape, you do it the right way and it's on the beat - that's an inspiration for me. When I do that I'm there completely with the music. I love that feeling and want to do it again, but I know there's no way to practice that because you don't always get there. You don't always have the right vocabulary at the right time. But sometimes in training I do get that and I can train for five or six hours...but the next day I can't move...I can’t move for a week.
IA: What do you want to dismantle in Hip Hop?
MM: I would like to dismantle the politics that come from it...and the differences between people. Hip Hop is about having fun, peace, all being one and helping each other. I think there's a lot of politics when monetisation is involved and it's separating some of the values that we believe in. There's some negative things that you hear that some people are doing within the industry...I would like to have some form of...I'm trying to find the right word, some sort of policing to make sure that we're always adhering to the main foundations of Hip Hop so that we're always helping each other and not implementing those negative things...or if we do then we have to learn from them. We should have access to a support system where we can help each other and give a bit more time and understanding to other people...not being so embedded within our own thoughts and taking advantage of the culture for our own benefit. Those are some of the things that I would like to dismantle.
IA: What are your thoughts on how breaking is or is not tackling and recognising racism?
MM: It's kind of hard to do so...I feel with breaking the people who have a higher understanding of what the community is and what it’s about - but not in all cases sometimes for them, racism is hidden away for a long time and they don't realise it until someone speaks up. I think those conversations should happen more often and I feel like it's not at the moment, it’s not happening as often as it could be and it's not talked about. Maybe there is a lack of interest in talking about it. If I say that racism is not present in breaking, I would be lying. There's definitely something there and you can see it, sometimes in big battles and in international battles, you can see the obscenery and the signs that some opponents make...maybe these people come from a country where they don't encounter racism as much as other countries. Sometimes they might be doing it unknowingly or without seeing how it affects the other person. I feel like there should be more educational programmes where this is talked about. It could be implemented by some regulations, when you come to an event, play nice, leave all your negative and racial thoughts aside. If you want to talk to someone, maybe there's someone at the event that you can talk to about those things or someone that would be happy to be open and talk about this. For example, before the final, people often have a show, maybe it’s here we can talk about this, just to remind everyone what the culture is about and to pay attention to how some people feel or have been affected by racism, discrimination and other things. I feel like we should do that, have more of those conversations - not just online - but in real life and have people talk to at those events. I think that would be a way to bring more awareness it because at the moment but no one's doing anything about it.
IA: We've just had COP26, discussions around environmentalism and sustainability are huge and we constantly hear about the idea of growth. Everyone is always on about more, bigger, faster. I'm interested in your thoughts on degrowth and slowness and how they might manifest in Hip Hop and breaking?
MM: We live in a fast paced world, it’s such a fast paced environment with technology and social media - you just want everything now...and actually that's harmful for you. It's harmful for your mind, it's harmful for your body and it's harmful for everyone around you. For the environment as well. I think sometimes maybe going away from that and trying to take five or 10 minutes to realise that you’re a person in a specific moment in time, look around you and have those realisations, otherwise it can impact you really negatively. I'm saying that because I can easily fall into that spiral and I have fallen into it many times. I'm trying to get to a point where you become really negative about everything but you don't care as much. Having those moments of realisation, a level of self awareness to think, that's not right, this is not who I am...and realising what's making you like that. It might be because your screen time increased by an hour or two hours a day but no one's pointing that out because all these huge corporations are making so much money out of it. It's profit, profit, profit...they're not looking at the health of our minds or the world that we're living in. Everyone's on screens all the time. I think degrowth is the real growth you can do in your own life, it's so important...if you don’t realise that you rush into a lot of things, you won’t achieve everything...but if you take a step back and think of who you are, what you're trying to achieve and focus on that goal...have clear objectives with what you want to achieve, then you will be able to achieve it much faster. Although you'll think you're going slower, you're actually going much faster, because you're focusing on that thing and that thing alone. You're giving who you are as a person, you're putting emotions, you're putting energy and you're helping it...rather than trying to do 100 things because this guy in a video said, make 100 grand a week by going on these websites or buying their products. That's not real. You should find people that are actually trying to help you...I think degrowth is gonna make us stronger as human beings, it's gonna make us more self aware and do something that's worthwhile, something significant for our environment and for who we are as people. Talk to the person next to you, rather than sending a text. I've managed to get so inspired from talking to someone rather then searching on Google and finding about it. Talking to someone face to face to you, explaining your story and talking about who they are has inspired me so much in the past - much more than scrolling.
IA: Is there anything that you want to talk about or record that we've not spoken about so far that you think is important? It might be a memory, an event or a particular thing that you’d like to talk about.
MM: Not really. I think we've thought we've touched on many subjects. Hmmm. If I was to talk about something, it would just be me ranting. Going back to the Olympics thing that we're talking about earlier...I get annoyed when it's politicising breaking. In some countries, you have the federation's coming from a different background...coming into our community and giving power to people that have no idea about breaking devalues it and can kill the community really easily. Those people think that they're better than us but it's not doing good for either side. It'd be good if they think more of who they put in charge... they’re looking at making money and profit, when actually they should be looking at how this can benefit the culture. At the moment it feels like everyone's jumping on the band wagon just to make profit...and it’s not benefiting the culture in any way. If anything it’s sending people away from it. You have a lot of people that are pioneers who are now old, a lot of people that were really good in the beginning who put a lot of effort into this scene and into breaking that are now overlooked by these organisations. I think there should be a way to ensure these people have a voice and help them represent the community better...because without them we wouldn't be where we are today. This wouldn't have been part of the Olympics and we wouldn't have all these opportunities. Some of the corruption that happens on on a political level...I get annoyed that it is being brought into our community. A lot of people are getting annoyed but they don't have the power to say or do anything. I think the people that feel like that...they should voice what they are feeling...I have been put in many situations where I had to be real and I was scared to share my thoughts about certain things. But I am nobody for these people. The worst that can happen is they'll ignore me. That's it. When I voiced some things out, I've managed to change some things, because my message got across and it's been understood...those people in power who were supposed to be doing right, they have been put in the spotlight and things have changed. They started to understand who we are in a different way, some of them actually helped towards the issue. People that feel trapped or in a corner should voice what they think. I think that's really important because otherwise you can become really closed in on yourself and you won't be able to express who you really are...and that can stay with you for the rest of your life.
IA: In the past 18 months, there's been so many revelations about toxic masculinity, grooming, sexual assault in the Hip Hop and breaking scenes. What's your experience of this?
MM: I feel kind of stupid because when I was going to a lot of competitions - I still go to a lot of battles - but I was really just focused on my own game. Who was I going to take out that day and getting as far as possible within the competition. I would have conversations with different people, but it would be basic stuff, like, how are you? How was your week? How did you get here? That was kind of it. I didn't really get in depth with some of the things that were happening. I wasn't aware that some of the people that I was going to the workshop of...I would hear something about them later on, sending a message to a student or abusing them or something like that. I was getting annoyed and it put me off...it's like whose workshop am I gonna attend next and find out that that guy is doing those kind of abuses to dancers...I would never think that that's actually real, that it’s actually happening. You close yourself from it because you think in breaking that will never happen, it would never in this community...you know it happens in the real world and on TV but you don’t think that that's happening in our community as well. The only experience that I had like was...someone told me about one of the girls I was training with. We were training in a studio, there was a lot of us in the space...she asked me, I'm gonna come to your city, where can I train? I said, come to this place, we meet up every Thursday. She came and then when I got home I received a text from her, you know this guy that was in the room he texted me a picture of his privates. I was like, what? That was the experience that made me think...oh my god, I'm training with these people every time and I had no idea that this guy's doing those kinds of things. I faced him about it and I said, what are you doing? I can report this to the police. This can happen and stuff like that. She didn't want me to do anything and said be careful, this guy is like that. But I had to have this discussion with him because I didn't think it was right. He apologised in the end and was feeling really sorry about it and what he’s done. I don't know how many people he’s done this to before...but that’s not right. Hopefully it didn't happen again...that was my only experience of that. Actually, I had another one. When me and my crew went to Estonia...in my crew you have people of different colour, it's very diverse. In Estonia I didn't realise, until we are on the streets, how much abuse they would get from certain people. Because it’s mainly White people in that country and they were just abusing them. It was really difficult, because obviously you wanted to fight them, but they were saying, it's not worth it. That really made me feel like crap, you feel useless because you can't do anything in the moment. I wish there was more education around that subject...because even for me, when I came to UK, I was 18 and I didn't know much about the history...back home we have a different history. We have other issues. But here, I've learned a lot about what's going on and I talk to a lot of people which has really helped me understand and give a bigger picture of what's happening. I took the time to research and I met people that have gone through a lot of these things, but in some countries, they don't have the opportunity to do that. I'm not taking their side, but maybe if there was a better educational system or a way that these people can be changed in the early days - saying this is not right. If you say those things you'll go to jail or you'll be penalised. But here you can say whatever, and everything's fine and life moves on. I wish this wasn't happening, but unfortunately it is.
IA: This last 18 months has been full of COVID, full of big grief and it's felt really heavy for a lot of people. As an antidote to that I was wondering if you could talk about some of the kindnesses that you've received from Hip Hop and breaking. MM: One of the most positive things that's happened to me is breaking. I said this from the beginning, especially during COVID when I was really uncertain about my future...with everything that was going on for other people. I had breaking and I could just dance and train and those thoughts would go away or at least be less amplified. I'm so grateful for having this in my life. There was some funding applications that I managed to apply for and people were giving opportunities away to do things. I was really grateful for those because it made me keep busy, it made me stay creative within my practice. I still managed to connect to people and what really inspired me is that people were still trying to organise events online. Online battles were never a big thing until COVID came around and then there was events all over the place. We managed to connect through Zoom...and we were calling each other, having hours and hours of conversations which brought us closer. I was feeling so much better after hearing the person on the other end of the screen that I used to see all the time at events...or if someone needed help in the crew, we were trying to support that person as much as we could. So in a way those things made my experience much more positive. I'm grateful that I managed to have this, to stay creative and to move. A lot of people had nothing to do, they would just sit down and all these thoughts would come in and there would be this dark cloud. It's not good. But there were a lot of positives that happened because of the kindness that people showed. People just said how are you? They gave you a call. There was a lot of people who were from breaking, but also from outside the community as well. Strangely I felt more connected with people during COVID than I did before COVID.
IA: Talk to me about Sportacus and LazyTown. How did it come about, the trip to Iceland, the green screen?
IA: Oh my god. That's so funny. That was back when I was trying to get more jobs through breaking and I was doing a lot of auditions in London travelling across country to try and get one of those commercial gigs or shows. But I got denied on most auditions and one time in passing someone told me, why don't you register with an agent online? I was like, OK, why not? It had never crossed my mind that I can do that and there wasn’t many breakers registering for this agency, so I was like, I'll register and see what happens. They're not in business anymore, but were called W Models or something like that. I registered with them and I didn't think anything of it. They got me a few gigs in the beginning, but I was in France at a battle and I received a call from them saying, we've got this big contact, they like your videos - back then my videos were really bad quality and mainly just training - they really like the training video that you did and they need someone to do those moves. Can you do one more video with a better quality and send it to us? I did some rounds and sent it over. They said, yeah, great we really like it. It's going to be in Iceland, in Reykjavik and it's going to be for LazyTown. I was like...what? That’s insane because I remember my cousin used to watch that when we were little...she was watching LazyTown on TV and talking about it. I was still at university and they offered me some dates...but during those dates I had an exam at uni. But for me, this was a big thing, I was breaker and I wasn't getting any gigs. I wasn't getting any of the auditions and this was the biggest thing that happened to me. I was so happy. I went to the uni and said I have this opportunity, can I retake the exam a different time? They said no, you have to take this exam, if you do not do this exam, you will fail the module. I said, OK, cool. They booked me the flights and I went out there. We had a driver for our trip who took us everywhere and we visited Iceland for a bit too before they took us to the studio. When we got inside I couldn't perceive how big that place was...I was tiny, tiny, tiny. You had these huge cameras and rigs going around you...and it was my first production on that level and I was so nervous...I had to keep repeating what they were asking me to do, which I wasn’t really happy about... because it was really tiring and they were like again, again. I was doing really difficult movements, but I think they probably didn't realise how difficult those movements were. The experience was crazy. Even to this day I can't believe I was part of that. When I got back to the UK, I looked online on the university system...I saw that the exam is in August, so I went to sit down at the exam and someone came to me and said is this you? I was like, yes. Well, you can’t sit this exam, you have to redo the whole module. I had to redo the module for six months the next year and I was the only one in class re-doing it. It was definitely worth it. I managed to finish my BA in the end and my master's degree too...and I did the LazyTown gig too.
IA: What is your strongest memory of dance?
MM: I think there are a lot of memories I have of dance that are really strong...but I think the strongest is the first day I started. How that connection...how immediate that was when I went to the studio...I just fell in love with it. I knew that I'm going to do this forever...it’s a strange, strange thing. When I was back home, my father was working abroad since I was three, he was working in Israel. Then my mum left when I was 14...I started breaking when I was 15. So it was just me, I was 15 and my sister was 12. I was living with my cousin as well who was seven years old. So it's the three of us and there was a lot of pressure on me because I was the eldest...I feel like when I started dancing, that gave me so much hope and it made me see life in a positive way. It made me realise how easily I could have fallen into something negative at that age. Not having your parents around...that was really difficult, but dance helped me find the right people...on that first day of it, I just had this realisation, it was so strong...I was like, this is amazing. This is happening and I didn't want it to stop, I wanted to do it every day. I think that was one of the most...beautiful and nice memories that I had with it. Because it saved me and it made me the person that I am today.