“There’s Something in the Rhythm You Can’t Write Down” – Naïma Mazic, Part I

Photo of Naïma Mazic (c) Maria Kousi
Naïma Mazic (c) Maria Kousi

To experience a production by the n ï m company is to watch artists step out of their comfort zones: jazz musicians dance; dancers create and perform music. It’s a melting of disciplines, a dissolving of boundaries, and the audience is cut loose from its normal points of orientation, in the very best sense. Naïma Mazic, the mastermind behind n ï m, grew up steeped in jazz and trained as a dancer; in the first part of this two-part interview, she speaks to Arianna Alfreds about the heartbeat of jazz, bridging the gap between music and dance, and getting jazz musicians to show up at 9 a.m.

What part of the world are you currently beaming from? 

Naïma Mazic: (laughs) Right now I’m in Berlin. I’m generally between Berlin and Vienna, working and living in both places at the moment.

You’ve been on a residency? 

Naïma Mazic: Yes, at LAKE Studios Berlin. It’s been a great opportunity to dive deep into research and work. I’ll be the artistic director there for one year starting from November.

But your roots are in Vienna. Can you talk about your unique upbringing and how it’s tied you to music? 

Naïma Mazic: I grew up in the Vienna jazz club Porgy & Bess. My mother, father, and stepfather [Gabriele Mazic, Mathias Rüegg, and Christoph Huber] and Renald Deppe founded it together, and my dad is also a composer and musician. So even aside from the club, there was always music being played around me. And growing up and touring with a jazz big band [the Vienna Art Orchestra], just being surrounded by music – it made an impact, of course.

I also worked at Porgy for many years and was always deeply connected to music, also through piano playing and singing in choirs. But at a certain point, dance took over. It was clear for me that dance and music feed each other, and that my own musicality had to be pushed through dance. Especially when I started to get into the hip-hop scene, dancing house, breaking, and swing dance, where I often noticed another approach to musicality within the body as compared to contemporary dance.

“the more I listen to my body, the more I’m able to listen with my body.”

So your initial interest came from personal practice, not out of a formal education.

Naïma Mazic: Yeah. It’s always been interesting to me to see how contemporary dance, music and rhythm are taught in schools. I always felt there is a lack of education on how to really listen to music and rhythmic knowledge that can really work with music, not just use music. Like, how to truly bring them together. I think in Western society, there’s often a lack of connection to the body. So I felt there was something lacking for the dancers regarding musicality; but also for the musicians – how to deal with the body and dance. For example, many musicians I work with say that as soon as they work with music and rhythm with their body, their playing changes. I also noticed for myself over the last year that the more I listen to my body, the more I’m able to listen with my body to music.

Video: “infectious” Trailer

So, even though you were more or less born into it, you had to find your own approach to (jazz) music.

Naïma Mazic: Definitely. For me, that was living in New York and meeting Haggai Cohen-Milo, a bass player who works with dancers a lot. He played at Porgy once and we started talking, and that’s how the collaboration began, for instance on the piece “infectious”. Before that, I had worked with musicians and composers, but with Haggai it felt for the first time I was actually working in [a way that was]…(pauses)…transdisciplinary? Interdisciplinary? I feel like we make disciplines in the first place, so to then call it ‘interdisciplinary’ or whatever is somehow… 


Naïma Mazic: Yes, I wonder about this a lot. Anyway, I started to ask Haggai: “How do you practice rhythm, or a scale? What do you do?” And then I took tools that he would use and put them into dance and choreography, and I felt like, “wow, I can work in rhythm like you do.”And then we can start speaking a common language.

And that was when you started to connect the two disciplines – jazz music and dance?

Naïma Mazic: Yes, I would say so. In 2015 I started studying at P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels, with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. She is known for bringing rhythm and musicality into her work. I was doing a so-called ‘post-master’s’ there, where I had to develop my own project. I started asking fundamental questions, like, “how can the heartbeat of jazz function in dance? How can dance and jazz communicate and get into dialogue?”

“There’s something in the rhythm that you can’t write down.”

Besides the fact that you grew up with it, what is it about the genre of jazz, specifically, that continues to inform and inspire you?

Naïma Mazic: (long pause) There’s something about freedom within form, expressing your voice or story through music. I mean, what’s also interesting is the question: What is even jazz? The term is already a problem. But something I think I learned from dancing house, hip-hop and breaking is that there are these given elements – let’s say melodic and harmonic, or certain basic steps. But then the vital component of jazz, improvisation, is taking these elements and telling your own story with them. It’s all about what you make of the language, how you improvise with it. I think that’s very beautiful: we all have the same base, but we talk in our own ways, our own dialects, with our own narratives. And I think that really connects to the porousness or sponginess of jazz in general: that so many rhythms or movements from different places and cultures come together in it. There’s something in the rhythm that you can’t write down. Something that grooves, swings.

Fred Moten, my teacher at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, said: “Jazz is, at the same time, the music of freedom and a critique of freedom.” And I think this is very fitting, because if you think of oppressed [peoples] and colonization, then in order to be free, you need something that is not free, something to free yourself from. That perspective was always very inspiring to me. And there is a very spiritual aspect to it that I found very beautiful and important.

Photo of "PoLy-Mirror" in performance, Brut, Vienna
“PoLy-Mirror” in performance, Brut, Vienna (c) Anja Beutler

You go to a lot of shows. How does this affect your practice?

Naïma Mazic: I learn a lot from watching jazz concerts – that’s where I get my inspiration for choreography. I don’t go anywhere without my notebook. And the more I enjoy the music, the more I fly and scribble away. I look at how the musicians communicate: “Okay, now they’re hanging out casually around the bass, watching the other person’s solo, or talking between songs about what they ate today.” As compared to a classical dance performance, where I feel a certain strictness or theatricality, where there is not the same interaction or communication for me. That’s something I love about jazz – being allowed to be yourself.

Would you consider yourself a bridge between jazz and dance? Or is it more integrative than that? (A bridge implies a connection between two things, rather than one unified entity.)

Naïma Mazic: Hm, a bridge – that’s interesting. I think about Black culture and African aesthetics in America, and when I think of the swing era, the music is what it is because of the dancers: the musicians watching the dancers and vice versa. The dance and the music evolved by being unified. So, yes, I think there is a certain bridge that needs to be made – especially here in Europe and in contemporary dance, where I feel like jazz music and dance are mostly very separate. 

What moves me is this working together by feeding [into one another], exploring together and developing a communication together. And not just being in dialogue but creating a [shared way of] thinking. Like, what kind of thinking do we need to get to certain places that are so connected, and yet still maintain our individual voices?

“I can feel a shift in curiosity to open up more to other art forms.”

Has it been a challenge to find people to collaborate with that are like-minded, to convince people to be open to experience both sides – jazz and dance?

Naïma Mazic: Actually, no. I’ve been extremely lucky, but I think many musicians and dancers are open to this. I can feel a shift in curiosity to open up more to other art forms, and especially to dance. People actually contact me – I get messages from musicians saying, “hey, I heard about what you’re doing. I would love to improvise with dance.” I feel like there is a lot of interest, people realizing the importance of it, and also musicians wanting to move themselves. 

Many jazz musicians have worked together with dancers, but more in the States. And also, jazz is still a male-dominated field; I think that plays a role. At the same time, I think as a jazz musician you have to be open to be part of the ‘sponginess’ that I was talking about before. But I still think there’s sometimes…and I don’t know how to put it in words… 

…Something more conventional going on, getting in the way?

Naïma Mazic: Yeah, like about practicing…there’s something about ‘virtuosity’ and the concentration of practicing that doesn’t give so much space for interdisciplinary work. But also working in this way is not easy, because to speak the same language in an artistic sense, or find ways of working together artistically is one thing, but there’s so much around it. 

Like practical issues?

Naïma Mazic: Yes – for example, dancers are just used to running around naked. And then you have like five male jazz musicians – how do they react in a dressing room with five naked women [or female-identified bodies]? Or the payment might be super different between disciplines. So, for me, as a contemporary dancer, with our very low salary – it’s often hard if I want to work with good musicians. I don’t know where to get the money, because that’s just not how we are paid in dance. Often, jazz musicians of a certain level are used to better payment, a nice hotel and good food, et cetera.

Photo of Naïma Mazic (c) Georg Cizek-Graf
Naïma Mazic (c) Georg Cizek-Graf

Okay, that’s a big challenge.

Naïma Mazic: Yes, for example, we were at the Leipziger Jazztage and my production assistant was like, “okay, everybody has to be at the theater at 9:00 in the morning.”And I was like: “But there’s going to be setup for stage design and light. Nobody’s going to work until the afternoon.” And he was, like: “It doesn’t matter. We’re in the theater. Everybody knows you have to be in the theater at 9:00 and just be available.” We dancers are very used to just hanging out and waiting. But to bring a jazz musician to the theater at 9 a.m., to just hang out and do nothing? 

Haha, good luck.

Naïma Mazic: Exactly. So, yeah, I know I have the responsibility – not only in the artistic sense, but in all the structural things: how do these two worlds actually work together? Dancers rehearse six or eight weeks, eight hours a day. Warm-up, et cetera. Musicians? I get two comments. One is: “Sorry, but I can’t; that’s too much for me.” And the other is: “I wish we would rehearse this much with my band! The music would be so good!” (laughs

In terms of building a bridge, it sounds like the “HEAR & NOW” jam sessions that you’ve recently started are a very useful, low-commitment way for musicians and dancers to get a taste of what it’s like to work together. Can you tell us about the sessions and how you came up with them?

Naïma Mazic: I’ve been researching the histories of music and dance, including the loft scene in New York [in the 70s and 80s]. Ornette Coleman had a loft where dancers would just show up, and there were lots of examples where jazz and dance came together at that time [see for instance Dancing in Blackness, a memoir by Halifu Osumare]. This really inspired me – the idea of having a space to meet and jam together, but within a framework. So at the sessions, I give an introduction and suggest tools and methods from time to time, and then it kind of runs by itself. The first one happened at the end of February at LAKE Studios in Berlin, and it was beautiful. What was so important for me, and really worked, was that there were house dancers, lindy-hop dancers, contemporary dancers and dance lovers. And again, the work of rhythm brings things and people together really strongly. In this jam session, we had Keisuke Matsuno on guitar and other musicians as well, and people left very happy, saying, “I feel so good in my body!” So, I want to do it every month if possible.

You also plan on doing it in Vienna, right?

Naïma Mazic: Yes, the next one will take place on May 7th from 6-9 p.m. in the Strenge Kammer at Porgy & Bess [to participate, email more2rhythm@gmail.com]. And after that, on the 2nd of July at the LAKE Studios 10th Anniversary Festival in Berlin.

Arianna Alfreds

Read part II of the interview here!


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