The Hervé Koubi Company recently brought three works to Milan, which I described as being “touching, theatrical and important”. It is the essence of Hervé Koubi's creative output, producing dance pieces that provoke thought and emotion while packing a strong theatrical punch.
In almost every review or interview with Koubi his unusual story is told. In brief, he was born in Cannes and studied ballet in the town's distinguished Centre International de Danse Rosella Hightower, and then with the Opéra de Marseille. He only learnt of his Algerian heritage when his father was on his deathbed and showed Koubi a photo of his grandfather wearing traditional Arab dress, and so when he was twenty-five Koubi's life changed. He set off on a personal journey of discovery that eventually would influence his artistic choices. But how did it affect him as a person?
It was very confusing for me, a real shock. But later, when I took a closer look at the remarkable history of the Mediterranean basin, which goes back more than three thousand years, I discovered a rich, varied and, above all, intermixed history, which is unfortunately often unknown to most of the peoples around the Mediterranean.
I realised that we belong to something that is older than our various nations and even our religions, and that our apparently diverse cultures are based on common foundations and are the result of interactions over thousands of years.
A wonderful discovery.
Yes, but that is why I am saddened, sometimes even angry, about identity-based conflicts and assertions. With the pretext of defending a just cause, this stance betrays what it is supposed to defend, namely ‘learning the art of living together'.
And what can dance say about this?
If we can dance together, we can live together, can't we? This has become one of the fundamental aspects of my thinking when approaching my work, and also when I approach life, because for me it is the same thing: dancing for me is life.
I have become particularly attentive in addressing my work to the question of otherness… the other… the foreigner. Since our roots are common in many ways, the ‘other' is often not an unknown foreigner at all.
Before the show Boys Don't Cry in Milan, you and your collaborator Fayçal Hamlat talked about additional forms of ‘otherness': that you are Jewish and he's Arab; that you don't speak Arabic and he does, that you are gay and he's straight. There are many forms of otherness that can frighten people, yet your combination of otherness is what makes you unique as a choreographer.
All aspects of my character traits and life experiences probably influence the way I create art: the choice of subjects, the aesthetics, and my sources of inspiration. The public, and dance specialists too, are probably in the best position to analyse my work, as with any artist.
In the same pre-show talk, you explained how you encourage your dancers, who don't have any formal training, to explore their feminine side.
I tell my dancers, “Don't be afraid of the feminine!” There's not a single rehearsal when I don't say this phrase to them, but it's not an order, it's just to encourage them to look at themselves and the world differently.
You know, I have never found my male dancers more powerful than when they embrace their feminine side. It may seem paradoxical, but for my part I am delighted by the fact that a ‘strong' man is above all a man who can also accept his feminine side. My art raises issues, and I am fortunate to be able to ask questions that go deeper and are more revealing, and that reflect contemporary matters.
Your dancers brought their street dance styles to you. How has this changed your approach to choreography?
I always say that I was blown away by hip-hop dancing, but my creations are obviously not of a hip-hop aesthetic. For me, hip-hop is a technique that I use and mix with my background, my personal vision, to create a unique language that is my own. This distinctiveness probably comes from the fact that my origins are not in hip-hop. I learned to dance in an academic way at a dance school, whereas my dancers are almost all self-taught and learned to dance in the streets. It is this blend that makes my work so unusual.
I believe greatly in the future of ballet where there is room for the new, so-called popular, techniques, just as traditional dances were incorporated in classical ballet in the 19th century.
The physical demands you make of your dancers are great, yet I imagine that there is no pre-show barre in order to warm up, so what do your dancers do to prepare their bodies and prevent injury?
They do a lot of stretching, yoga, and sophrology too. Of course, their personal training is also an important and indispensable part to allow them to perform their head and hand rotations and acrobatics in complete safety.
Fayçal, my close collaborator, oversees this. He was a dancer in an earlier formation of the company and, thanks to him, injuries are extremely rare and this is something I am particularly proud of when you consider how athletic, physical and demanding my dance is.
My reaction, and that of the audiences in Milan on seeing your works, was overwhelmingly positive, with whoops and cheers at the end. Is it always so?
There are wonderful reactions to our shows which is satisfying. It seems that the question, “What does it mean to dance together today?” is understood by the audience. The demand for powerful and delicate, even feminine, dancing by male dancers also seems to be well received by the public. At the same time, I am cautious about feedback from the public, which sometimes seems too generous. To say that triumphant appreciation by the public does not affect me would be a lie, and I am very moved by their response, but what counts most for me is the demands I make of myself and my feelings after each performance. Sometimes, I am not happy at the end of a show even though the public applauded and gave us a standing ovation.
What about negative reactions?
Well, people who don't like our shows leave and so I don't hear about it. There is, however, a little negative feedback from the French professional milieu that shows a certain jealousy. I am one of the French choreographers who tours the most internationally, but I have not had the good fortune and honour of being recognised in my own country. I prefer not to talk about the sometimes negative feedback that comes from this, which is not very constructive and which often comes from people who have not even seen my work.
In a way, you are educating audiences with your work, so I was interested to hear about your work with schools.
To question how to communicate one's work in the context of educational projects is to question the work itself, so therefore it's an important part of my work that I like developing and that nourishes me.
Moreover, I am convinced that education and culture can do a great deal to improve society and my desire that we can learn to live together. If we can dance together, we can live together. I know I have already said this to you, but I believe in it profoundly and so I will say it again, if I may.
Of course. It's a poetic message.
The commitment shown by your dancers is palpable, and in Milan they even learnt their monologues in Boys Don't Cry in Italian for just the one performance. Have there been dancers who failed to understand what you are trying to achieve?
I choose my dancers meticulously and there is a long process before they are engaged with my company. That is probably why none of my dancers have ever been reluctant to follow me on these journeys, and none of them have ever been at a loss to understand what I'm trying to say. I never stop nurturing them in their preparatory work so that once on stage their bodies, and in this work even their words and voices, can be fuelled by their own convictions, their authenticity and especially their sincerity.
It is my job to encourage them to travel in the same direction as me.
Of course, on occasions, you have women in your company too.
Yes, I currently have four female dancers in my company. I have also made a short film with 15 dancers from the Mediterranean region – Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, Israel and France. This is a project that was financed mainly with our own funds.
So, what is your next project?
Sol invictus [‘Unconquered Sun' – a Syrian sun god] is the name of my next project, though it's difficult to say exactly what this creation will be about for the moment.
For me, dance is my whole life or, more precisely, dance and life are one and the same thing for me, and I would like to make a dance piece about life. It is quite frightening because it is ambitious to approach a creation in this way, but also terribly exciting.
It will be about my choreographic obsession with dance creation resulting from years of work between me and my dancers – this combination of the dancer I was together with these street dances – and to finally consider the choreographer I am today. It will go beyond the questions about identity that have preoccupied me in my previous pieces, so for this next creation I would like to free myself from these questions, which is also a way of liberating myself.
If I had to sum up in one sentence the impulse that is driving me to create this next work, I would perhaps do it awkwardly, but I would say this: “If only dance were left to save us…”
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.