Contemporary performing arts in Morocco: a missed rendezvous

This article is also available in French.

Music, dance, theatre, and halqa[1], have always been part of Moroccan culture and folklore, with their geographical specificities and diversity of expression - whether secular or spiritual. These artistic forms have always been part of Moroccan daily life; of celebrations, family events, and religious ceremonies, in particular in the frame of festivals or moussems[2]. These forms of performing arts are more and more rare in the public space, very often due to the lack of transmission to young people, as the older generations begin to die out, and to poor documenting of oral traditions. Performing arts have, however, also experienced a modern and contemporary evolution, starting with the independence in the 60s, with differences among disciplines. Music and theatre thus lived a golden age which lasted until the end of the 80s. Some music groups (like Jil Jilala, Nass El Ghiwane, Lemchaheb…) and several theatre companies were created during that period, with great popular success. This was due mostly to the political engagement of those artists and to the subversive character of certain theatre and music creations, which accompanied the political opposition during the années de plomb (years of lead) (1965-1999). The turmoil faded out, fought against by the State and king Hassan II (1961-1999), who considered such art a serious threat to a long-lasting powerful regime. Dance, on the other hand, did not experience this 'transformation', at least not in the same period, and this probably for socio-cultural reasons related to the taboo of the body, the difficulties with having a mixed-sex ensemble, and the negative social perception of dance in general. In 1964, dancer and choreographer Lahcen Zinoun[3] paved the way for a more contemporary dance form, which however would need many more years before taking its place in the artistic landscape and leaving a footprint there.

All this happened in a context where cultural policies were weak or non-existent, and there was a clear lack of education, training, coaching, professionalization, audience development, amateur practices, support for creation and dissemination...

Let's elaborate…

There is no shortage of cultural venues in Morocco: about 40 houses of culture, the same number of conservatoires[4], 600 urban and rural youth centres[5], 100 theatres and cultural venues of which 34 depend on the Ministry of Culture[6], two big theatres currently under construction in Casablanca and Rabat... And yet there is a deep malfunctioning in several areas, including:

  • Human resources able to ensure vision and artistic direction, administrative and financial management for venues, and consistent programming over the year;
  • Technical resources: these cultural venues are often under-staffed (or lacking staff altogether), with no equipment maintenance, and responsible technicians who are poorly or not at all trained;
  • Cultural mediation and work with and for the audiences: the missing link of the chain in performing arts venues.

In the last 20 years some initiatives have appeared in the independent sector[7]. Once again music was the avant-garde: a contemporary music scene developed at the end of the 90s, promoting musicians who appropriated rock, metal, rap, hip hop and reggae in Moroccan 'sauce' - music, arrangements and lyrics in darija[8]. Some theatre and contemporary circus groups appeared as well, proposing original creations or contemporary adaptations: Dabateatr, Théâtre Nomade, Colokolo, Accroche-toi, Spectacle pour tous, Théâtre de l’Opprimé and others. Contemporary dance always develops more slowly than its two cousins; it is only in the last 12 years or so that Moroccan choreographers have entered the scene and started to work more or less exclusively as choreographers. These include Meryem Jazouli, Khalid Benghrib, Taoufiq Izeddiou, Bouchra Ouizguen, and Ahlam Morsli. They create, train young dancers, and organise festivals ('On marche' had its 12th edition in 2017), master classes, workshops, international cooperation projects, multidisciplinary creations and more. Espace Darja, managed by Meryem Jazouli, is currently the only space exclusively for contemporary dance creation in Casablanca. 

There are some private venues for performing arts creation and dissemination that open and work, year by year, according to available resources and political will, including Sidi Moumen's cultural centre Les Etoile, L’uZine, La Fabrique Culturelle des anciens abattoirs, Espace Tabadoul, Chapiteau du théâtre Nomade, the travelling stage Spectacle pour Tous, and Théâtre Darna in Tanger. Some of these centres are partly self-financed (via ticketing, subscriptions, services such as cafeterias), partly supported by foundations created for this purpose. Most of them rely on public funding or project funding to function. 

Hundreds of festivals, mostly temporary, are also organised in Morocco, in different formats: from the grand, internationally renowned ones (Mawazine in Rabat, Gnawa in Essaouira, Musiques Sacrées in Fès) to the local ones (Taragalte - M'Hamid El Ghizlane, Zagora), from the multidisciplinary to the specialised (Jazz au Chellah – Rabat, L’Boulevart – Casablanca, Timitar – Agadir…). Funding for festivals comes from different sources: private sponsors (banks, phone companies, industry and financial firms...), public funding (local governments or ministries), and in-kind support (catering, transport, publicity...).  Only a few festivals are funded solely through ticket selling. The Jazz au Chellah festival is entirely funded by the European Union delegation.

Less than half a dozen of these events concern contemporary dance, and a dozen concern theatre[9]. On its side the Ministry of Culture organises 22 festivals for 'arts and heritage'[10] across the country; these include dance, theatre, music and other performing arts forms, with a focus on folklore and heritage. 

The sinews of war

Who funds the performing arts in Morocco?

In general, there are three levels of funding for cultural activities in the country:

The institutional level: ministries and local governments. The Ministry of Culture has different programmes supporting creation, with an annual budget of 15 million dirhams (ca. € 1.5 million) each for theatre, music and choreographic arts. This kind of funding is allocated on the basis of technical specifications, following an open call and selection by a jury. Between 2014 - the year of its launch - and 2016, in spite of several criticisms and flaws, the Ministry received 712 proposals for theatre (314 were selected) and 845 music/dance projects (279 selected) [11].
Other ministries (foreign affairs, tourism...) and local governments can also support the performing arts, namely through festivals. There is no public data available on the budgets allocated.
Other support mechanisms have been developed recently to promote the music industry: Visa for Music (market for African and Middle-Eastern music) and, more recently, the MOMEX (Bureau for the Export of Moroccan Music). These two structures are the results of a public-private partnership between the Ministry of Culture and private partners.

Private: several companies (banks, insurances, phone operators, mines...) sponsor - directly or via foundations - some highly visible artistic events. These are mostly festivals, especially music festivals, which gather huge audiences and offer the sponsor a platform for 'publicity'. Budgets vary considerably, depending on the size of the event, and can go up to several hundred thousand euros.

International cooperation: this is key in the support to contemporary Moroccan creation at different levels such as (co-)production, dissemination (availability of venues, funding for festivals), and training (master classes, workshops, internships...).
Regional or international projects also involve Moroccan and foreign artists and cultural professionals, with funding from the European Union, foundations, independent funders, and foreign cultural institutes like Goethe Institut, Institut Français, Instituto Cervantes…

Training: the origin of the world

Learning dance, circus, theatre or music in Morocco is not an easy task, nor it is possible for everyone. ISADAC (Institut Supérieur d’Art Dramatique et d’Animation Culturelle) is the only public institution training theatre professionals, and offers a varied curriculum (acting, interpreting, dramaturgy, staging, stage design...)[12]. The Shemsy[13] school is the only one offering professional training for circus artists; it is recognised as the National Circus School. A certified training institution, acknowledged by the Ministry for Professional Training and led by the Moroccan Association to help children in precarious situations (Amesip), Shemsy trains about 15 certified professionals per year. Dance and music are not that 'lucky': there is no school or institute offering professional training in either discipline. The Institut Supérieur de la Musique et des Arts Chorégraphiques has been planned for years. Conservatoires offer theatre and music classes, often as amateur practice.

As for the 'related' professions, there is still not much on offer. There are only a few licenses and Master's degrees in cultural management/engineering or mediation, offered at universities in Casablanca, Marrakech or Rabat. These courses are very general, and do not prepare their students for the market and professional reality. Finally, to date there is no technical training for the performing arts (sound, lighting, direction, security, stage...).

Professionals, artists, technicians and managers are often trained 'on the field' in contact with their peers, abroad, or by participating in workshops, mainly organised by associations or cultural institutes.

We do not talk here about private training opportunities, which are limited and only affordable for clients from a privileged socio-economic category.

Performing arts - for whom?

At the beginning and end of the whole chain is the most important link: the audience.

It is very difficult for a child or a young person to practice dance, theatre or music for her/his own pleasure. The Moroccan public school doesn't allow for it, since artistic education, although part of the teaching curricula, is not compulsory and dramatically lacks resources, particularly human resources.

Among adults, because of the lack of 'preparation' by the schools, the attendance to artistic events of any kind is very low. Reading, going to a performance, visiting a gallery or a museum are quasi-absent practices. Artistic and cultural venues intimidate potential audiences because of their solemnity. Buying tickets for a concert or a theatre or dance performance is rare; only free entrances or performances in public spaces are likely to gather an audience.

A 2016 study on the cultural practices of Moroccans, carried out by the Racines association[14], revealed alarming figures: for example, out of 1,200 individuals interviewed, almost one third declared they do not engage in any amateur artistic practices. 8% of the respondents practice dance, 6% practice music and 5% theatre. The attendance to artistic events is also low: 58%, 80%, 81%, 73% and 54% of the people interviewed declared they had never been to - respectively - a concert, a dance performance, a circus performance, a theatre performance, or a street art performance.

Conclusion

One can only discuss the situation of performing arts and contemporary artistic creation in Morocco in the global framework of the country's cultural policies, and the different stakeholders that are involved at one point or another of the value chain.

First, cultural action - from artistic education at school to creative industries passing by popular education, training and mentoring of artists - should be considered as part of the public service. The State and public structures have to invest money, human resources and quality technical equipment in the arts. Private or independent investment (cultural entrepreneurship, civil society action, private sponsoring...) should be encouraged and supported through active incentives. Focusing on the creative industries - for which there are almost no data available (% of the GDP, generated employment, growth...) is not a priority at the moment; creative industries should not distract attention from the basic points of the cultural policies chain: education, training, access, freedom of expression and creation...

Schools therefore should play a key role in the artistic education of children. Other tools (media, press, public space...) should contribute to popular education, as a vector of democracy, citizenship and freedom. The media and the press also have a key role in artistic critique, encouraging the emulation of artists and their confrontation with the audiences.

All of this must happen in an atmosphere of respect for the fundamental rights of access to culture, enjoyment of the arts and freedom of expression, in order to free artists' creativity and to encourage an open-minded audience.  

Dounia BENSLIMANE
Diplômée de médecine en 2003, elle travaille dans le champ de la culture et du développement depuis 2008. En 2011, elle dirige « La Fondation des Arts Vivants », structure de spectacle vivant, et coordonne la « Fabrique Culturelle des Anciens Abattoirs de Casablanca » de 2011 à 2013. Elle co-fonde en 2010 l'association Racines qu'elle dirige depuis 2013, et a été membre du réseau pan africain Arterial Network jusqu'en 2015. Elle suit la formation European Diploma on Cultural Projects Management de l’association bruxelloise Marcel Hicter en 2013/14.

[1] The oldest form of traditional theatre in Morocco

[2] Annual regional celebration associating a religious celebration (often honouring a saint), festive activities (arts and popular traditions) and commercial activities

[3] http://lahcenzinoun.com/biographie/

[4] Source: artmap.ma

[5] Source: http://www.mjs.gov.ma/sites/default/files/jeunesse/reseau_des_maisons_de...

[6] Source: http://www.minculture.gov.ma/fr/images/files/guidesalles1.pdf

[7] Formal and informal associations which do not necessarily receive public funding and are not primarily profit-oriented

[8] Moroccan Arab dialect  

[9] Source : artmap.ma

[10] Source : http://www.minculture.gov.ma/fr/images/files/festivalsfr2503.pdf

[11] Source : Bilan 2012-2016 du Ministère de la Culture

[12] http://www.minculture.gov.ma/fr/index.php/component/content/article?id=3...

[13] https://www.karacena.net/shems-y-ecole-nationale-de-cirque

[14] www.pratiquesculturelles.ma 

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