The French-Algerian choreographer Hervé Koubi returned to the annual MILANoLTRE contemporary dance festival with three works after last year’s acclaimed Les Nuits Barbares ou les Premiers Matins du Monde (Barbarian Nights or the First Mornings of the World). In fact, it was so popular that it was performed again this year alongside Ce que le Jour doit à la nuit (What the Day Owes the Night) and Boys Don’t Cry (choreographed together with Fayçal Hamlat, a former dancer with the troupe).
The company is made up from 12 French-Algerian and African dancers and combines martial arts, hip hop, capoeira (the Brazilian martial arts form that incorporates dance elements), and contemporary styles. Koubi’s talent is taking the diverse group of dancers who are exhilarating in their head and hand spinning and gymnastic somersaults and flips, and yet making them unified in their intensity of purpose, the softness of their gestures, their acting abilities (in Boys Don’t Cry the dancers have short monologues which were, touchingly, all performed in Italian), and their communicability. The audience is able to pick them out rapidly – the tall one, the one with long hair, the one with blue eyes, the one with the ten-pack abs – and then slowly gets to know them: the timid one who spins on his hands, the cute one, the cheeky one, the aloof one.
Yet some of the most theatrical moments come from their work as a group, and Koubi is skilled at presenting stage pictures that are conjured up in an instant and then disappear back into the group of individuals. In Ce que le Jour doit à la nuit they form a ‘V’ holding aloft one of the dancers, and as he falls backwards, as though in slow motion, they follow him to the ground like a falling house of cards; and in the same work, and also in Les Nuits Barbares, they assemble to create a human springboard for a dancer who dashes in from the wings, leaps, flies, and is caught on the opposite side of the stage. These are breathtaking and showy, yet there is always poetry in the gymnastics and the sequences are never gimmicky.
Hervé Koubi was born in Cannes and studied in the town’s distinguished Centre International de Danse Rosella Hightower, and then with the Opéra de Marseille. He learnt of his Algerian heritage when his father was on his deathbed and showed Koubi a photo of his grandfather wearing traditional Arab dress – at twenty-five, Koubi’s life changed. It set him off on a personal journey of discovery that eventually would influence his artistic choices.
Before the Milanese performance of Boys Don’t Cry, Koubi and co-choreographer Fayçal Hamlat spoke to the audience with understated humour (again in Italian): I’m Jewish, he’s Arab; he speaks Arabic, I don’t; he’s straight, I’m gay; and so on. This is the basis of much of Koubi’s work, celebrating differences and similarities, but seeing the possible resolution of conflict arising because of those differences through knowledge and understanding. Les Nuits Barbares does this visually by showing warring factions contrasting with amicable collaboration, and also with its choice of music, mixing Christian religious music with Algerian melodies.
Ce que le Jour doit à la nuit takes its title and inspiration from Yasmina Khadra’s 2010 novel. The female name is the pseudonym of the Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul who was a high-ranking officer in the Algerian army before going into exile in France in 2000. It concerns a young Arab boy brought up in a pied-noir family (people of French and other European origin who were born in Algeria during French rule) though he never forgets his Arab roots; it’s a story that reflects Koubi’s own experience. Bach and Sufi music are mixed in with an atmospheric percussive soundscape, giving a similar experience to Les Nuits Barbares, and the mesmerising barefooted and bare-chested dancers, dressed in white trousers and skirts, oblige the audience to scrutinise their every move. A dancer moves downstage as Lionel Buzonie’s meticulous lighting begins to fade, and he recites a poem by Koubi in Arabic which explains his discovery of Algeria: “I went there…” to find streets, houses, tombs, and above all “my lost brothers”.
Boys Don’t Cry is a piece that the company also brings into non-theatrical spaces as part of education programmes. It uses a smaller company of seven men and, often in a light-hearted way, looks at the problem in many cultures of dance not being considered a masculine activity, maybe especially when you come from North Africa and the Arab world. There are no dance schools in Algeria and most of the company’s dancers trained in parks and on street corners.
In this work, dance is not seen as the opposite of football, though there is a speech at the opening about hating football but joining in anyway to please ‘mama’. It shows dance as a social tool where violence can be sublimated through the liberating freedom of moving one’s body to rhythm. In a recent interview, Koubi tells of the need to convince his dancers not to be afraid of exploring gestures that may seem feminine to them, adding that a man who dances in the Arab world is showing “an act of resistance, a cry of love”. The physical vocabulary in Boys Don’t Cry is similar to that seen in the other pieces, but softer, and broken by recited sections that are at turns funny, tender and sad, and each dancer proved himself a worthy actor.
Koubi has been widely celebrated around the world from this year’s Venice Biennale to New York’s City Center. The New York Times said Koubi was “an important addition to dance” calling the reviewed work “a creation of poetic beauty”. Yet, strangely, his work is not favoured in France where the company is based. Koubi has been named Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Republic, yet in twenty-two years of activity his company has never been invited to a theatre in France’s provincial capitals, and he says that the theatre directors don’t come to see his work.
His reward surely comes from the reaction of the public. At the end of each show, after an hour in the dark with absolutely no disruption from glowing phone screens or ringtones from an enrapt audience, the total silence was broken by passionate and emotional applause.