NextMove Dance presents Compagnie Hervé Koubi’s ‘What the Day Owes to the Night’ (second review)

On and on 'til the break of dawn

Choreographer Hervé Koubi took the title of his NextMove show at the Prince Theater, Ce que le jour doit à la nuit (What the Day Owes to the Night), from a novel by Yasmina Khadra (a.k.a. Mohammed Moulessehoul). It’s about a young Algerian who is ambivalent about his country’s war for independence: Koubi, like hordes of displaced people over the last century, learned he was not who he thought he was.

Hervé Koubi's street dancers, grounded and aloft. (Photo by Ahmad Daghlas.)

When Koubi was 25, his aging father revealed his Algerian heritage. After reconnecting with his past, this is Koubi’s second collaboration with street dancers from Africa and Europe. And with the Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project, based partly here and in Burkina Faso, Koubi’s is the second work originating from African countries in one weekend (Kulu Mele, Philly’s West African dance drumming and hip-hop company, will be the third).

What the Day Owes to the Night premiered in 2013 at Pavillon Noir, Aix-en-Provence (France), and has been touring ever since. Lionel Buzonie’s lighting design kept the mood changing. Company manager Guillaume Gabriel’s costumes were split white skirts banded around the waists. The 12 dancers wore these over white pants, cinched at the ankles. They made for gorgeous Dervish-like images, whether the dancers were whirling on their feet or on their heads.

Bringing it back home

The performance began solemnly, with the men huddled together in hazy light. They slowly emerged from their human pyramid, tentatively performing a backflip here, a head spin there. The score roved from Vivaldi Baroque to Sufi to Nubian composer Hamza El Din (played by Kronos Quartet) and back to Bach and the Baroque. War and brotherhood were themes. A man seemed to be shot and his skirt was gently lifted up over his face like a shroud by another dancer. They all watched as he rolled away from death as if resurrected.

One of the major forms of hip-hop dance is called "B-boying," and one of its elements is “power moves”: acrobatics that utilize momentum, speed, and counterbalance with the upper body that create circular momentum. You see this in head spins, windmilling, and swiping, where the dancer takes a preparatory step and whips his arms to one side to touch the ground, his legs continuing in a twist until he lands on his feet. Koubi leaned heavily on these three moves, some martial arts, and contemporary dance. And while his dancers’ strength, stamina, and agility allowed for many spectacular lifts, throws, and falls, these athletic street dancers did not have enough training and grace for the contemporary movements. 

The dancers’ skin was iridescent with sweat, and after a flip, their skirts often stuck to their backs. In the most improvised-looking sections, another nearby dancer would sidle up and peel it off tenderly. It all began to look very brotherly; indeed, it takes brotherly trust to vault into the arms four or more men, be lifted into a standing position above them and then fall back safely into their arms several times. As the lights dimmed, a lone figure cried out in Arabic, “I went there.”

As we left the theater, one well-known B-boy dancer said, “What’s funny is, he [Koubi] did an Algerian story with an American art form.” Yes, and in a city that has been a hotbed for the form for more than a quarter-century. Yet I saw only the one practitioner there. Oddly, there was no outreach to the vast breakdancing and B-boy community here. That was a missed opportunity for an artist who professes to reach across cultures in friendship. Both groups could have learned much from each other.

To read Camille Bacon-Smith's review, click here.

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