Herve Koubi’s trans-cultural spin

The French choreographer draws on many movement traditions to create a powerful dance experience

Before the performance of his La Compagnie Hervé Koubi in a packed Lincoln Hall began, Koubi asked to read a short prepared statement.

Perhaps aware of how irrepressibly French he looked and sounded, he apologized to the White Bird crowd for his uncertainty with English with an impish smile. His statement began on the point of how very French it was to be named Hervé and be from Cannes. Until his twenties, Hervé was as sure of his Frenchness as we Americans in the audience were. However, when asking his aging father for stories about his ancestors, he learned that his origins were very different. His taciturn father simply showed him a photograph of an Algerian man in traditional dress. This man only spoke Arabic, his father said, and so did the rest of his family and his ancestors.

 

La Compagnie Hervé Koubi performs 'What the Day Owes the Night'/

La Compagnie Hervé Koubi performs ‘What the Day Owes the Night’/

“He is your grandfather,” said Hervé’s father. That was how Hervé found out he was in fact French-Algerian. And origins and cultural fusion were two major themes in the intense and acrobatic dance, “What the Day Owes the Night,” that followed.

Koubi’s first career was in medicine, a point always mentioned in reviews and bios. The implication, it seems, is that his work has been part of a search, that he’s come to dance and his ideas through an investigation of other, non-dance parts of the world. His all-male dance company all hail from Algeria except one talented man from Burkina Faso. (Their auditions in Algeria attracted 200 men and only one woman: This type of dance had to be practiced on the street and after hours, which, in Algeria, is reportedly not a friendly setting for women.)

The dance’s title references a book and movie about an Algerian boy who is sent to live with his affluent uncle in a colonial town and the cross-cultural love affair that follows, set against the Algerian revolution. The fabric of this piece is woven from many threads, the product of entangled, complex origins.

Collaborating with co-choreographer Guillaume Gabriel and the dancers as creative partners, Koubi has created an incredibly athletic movement vocabulary from a truly global mixture of sources. Capoeira, other martial arts, breakdancing and hip-hop are all intensified by a litany of leaps, trust falls, throws, and acrobatics. Feats of strength permeate the show, handled muscularly as if they are just another form of movement. Seeing enough dance can desensitize you to seeing a stage full of improbably fit and muscular bodies, but even so, these guys looked like a crew of off-duty superheroes, or at least Olympic gymnasts.

The dancers all wore linen pants knotted at the waist into a flowing white sheet that added a ritualistic feel to their movements. Especially when split into groups running circles around the stage, I felt like there were distinct references to the Whirling Dervishes of Sufism. Dervishes’ white robes symbolize death, and during the more narrative section of the performance, one dancer shrouded one of his brothers in his own sheet as he lay on the edge of the stage, one of the most delicate movements in the whole piece.

Likewise I found myself thinking of the mesmerizing group Zikr dances, which are enjoying a recent resurgence as an important cultural experience among certain Muslim populations. And not just the form of these dances—the pace, too. What struck me was the sense that there was a job to be done, that they seemed to be roaming the stage together to produce a change or finish a project together, like the room full of men chanting Zikr or Dervishes spinning until they enter a new state of consciousness. The transformations that took place threw them into the air or turned them on their heads, at one point feeling as if they had just decided to reverse gravity for a passage. There was the firm mastery of movement that acrobats and rock climbers display, an ease that doesn’t trouble itself with a high-gloss polish.

La Compagnie Herve Koubi/Didier Philispart

La Compagnie Herve Koubi/Didier Philispart

This pace had the sense of an endurance piece, but also of a new traditional form. A difficult group performance for men in a changing world of tensions, where religion and tradition are fading, identity becomes fluid, and the options of expression are greater than ever. What we encounter here is a very global mix of influences brought to bear on a personal relationship to post-colonial identity.

Like the book it’s named after, this dance explores the difficulty of finding a personal voice amidst historical and political tension, a displacement of identity from the legacy of colonialism, and the unstable results of forcibly mixed cultural forms. While this tension was clear throughout the show, Koubi was sure to refer to his dancers as his brothers. Whether or not that was a conscious reference to the Sufi brotherhood, it’s clear that they have created a fraternity around a new form of physical expression.

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