There is little here that feels like a test of testosterone; indeed, in one brief section of duets there’s a subtle charge of eroticism when the men lift and lean on one another.
Compagnie Hervé KOUBI at Jacob’s Pillow in the Ted Shawn Theatre, 358 George Carter Road, Becket MA, through August 7.
By Janine Parker
In her curtain speech before Compagnie Hervé KOUBI’s Thursday night performance at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Pillow director Pamela Tatge stressed a point she’s made a few times this season. I paraphrase: It’s a gift, particularly these days (when there is so much talk of borders and blame, I presume she means), to see, week after week, dancers and companies from around the world. Amen, sister, I think, each time she’s said it. Then I inevitably remind myself that she’s probably preaching to the choir. But let’s keep singing, as long as this vast variety of groups — like this one, in which the majority of the seventeen males are of Algerian descent — keep dancing.
Among the various projects the pharmaceutical student-turned choreographer Hervé Koubi has created is Ce que le jour doit à la nuit (What the Day Owes to the Night), his 2013 hour-long dance inspired partly by Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra’s novel of the same name. As the French-born Koubi explained when he joined Tatge onstage, the piece was also fueled by his discovery that he has Algerian roots. He called it “a shock” to learn from his father that his great-grandparents spoke only in Arabic.
“We are always scared of multiculturalism,” Khadra said in an interview last year on Al Jazeera television, but “I think it is the future of humanity.”
And indeed, the charming, soft-spoken Koubi has embraced his new-found multiculturalism. The performers we were about to see, he said, were “not my dancers, but my found brothers.” Throughout Ce que le jour, the dancers do seem to be part of a unit: now a family, now a tribe — sometimes seeming to prepare for battle, but sometimes for prayer. At other times — like in the hazy opening scene, in which a group of dancers lying in the center of the stage moves slowly and softly, as if waking — they are like a complex but interdependent organism. Their undulating torsos and extending limbs explore the atmosphere and, as they rise, the structure of the group expands, but never seems to break up, even when Koubi disperses them about the stage and even, eventually, when they exit the stage.
During the opening scene the bubble of this brotherhood is held taut, at least in part, by the protracted time in which Koubi has the dancers facing upstage, away from the audience. This wasn’t off-putting but, rather, it felt as if we were witnessing something private, sacred.
The movement palette is based largely on the feats that have developed from the streetdance culture now practiced by b-boys and b-girls around the world. There is a big emphasis on acrobatic physicality. The dancers spin on their heads, on their knees, on their hands; they run and simply hurl themselves into huge flips, usually without using their arms and hands to push off from the floor. There are also Capoeira-spiked chugging weight shifts in wide pliés, and tiny hints of modern dance within slides to and rolls on the floor. Even the nineteenth century ballet choreographer Lev Ivanov is occasionally referenced when the men roll their arms liquidly like swans-wings, while the contemporary “extreme action” choreography of Elizabeth Streb comes to mind when the men slip over their straddled legs and then shoot them straight out, landing flat on their backs.
Street and hip-hop dance are still, relatively speaking, younger players in the concert dance world. Some attempts to marry the different worlds fizzle into dazzling — but disconnected — displays that would be exciting to see out on the street, but come off as random, even sucked of some of their power, when framed by a proscenium. Not so here. Koubi has merged many worlds into a whole that not only makes perfect sense up on a stage, but is enhanced by the new context. When the dancers catapult themselves into the air or into a maelstrom of a spin, it’s undeniably thrilling: the height, the suspension, the propulsion of it all is breath stopping, heart skipping stuff. But they aren’t showboating. There is little here that feels like a test of testosterone; indeed, in one brief section of duets there’s a subtle charge of eroticism when the men lift and lean on one another. Instead of beating their (bare) chests, they are allowed to be multi-dimensional: powerful and sensual, all at once. Guillaume Gabriel’s attractive, off-white costumes likewise refuse to box them into some kind of manly-man stereotype; paneled skirts are layered over pants.
Koubi’s staging is superbly deft: the way he moves his cast about the stage, the choices he makes about layering phrases, when and how many perform in unison versus when the stage teems with individuals doing their own thing. His pacing is also adroit. Like the mixed score — which includes a soundscape by Maxime Bodson, excerpts of the Kronos Quartet performing with Nubian musician Hamza El Din, gloriously cacophonic snippets from Bach’s St. John Passion, and traditional Sufi music — the energy of Ce que le jour constantly shifts. The movement is now velvety, ambient; then gripping, explosive.
What does the day owe to the night? What do we owe to one another? In several variations on the theme, a dancer is tossed up (way, way, way) or, after clambering atop a pyramid of others, a dancer tilts back and falls. Each time this band of brothers catches the precipitously descending man, tenderly, with great care.
The dance closes with a dancer softly reciting, in Arabic, a poem Koubi wrote in French, presumably about his first sojourn into Algeria after learning of his ancestry. “I went there to see the streets, houses and tombs,” the verse (loosely translated) begins. “I went there to meet my lost brothers…I went there because I believe in the power of love and spirit…”
Janine Parker can be reached at email@example.com.