FROM CANNES TO ORAN, AND BACK
Hervé Koubi Drops Day and Night on the Pillow
WHAT THE DAY OWES TO THE NIGHT
JACOB’S PILLOW | AUGUST 3 – 7, 2016
What the Day Owes to the Night (Ce Que le Jour Doit à la Nuit). The title of choreographer Hervé Koubi’s spectacle de la danse is drawn from Yasmina Khadra’s 2010 novel: a coming-of-age love story set in the period before, and the aftermath of, the French-Algerian war. It’s not that the piece draws from the novel’s plot or characters, but rather the novel’s setting, Oran, Algeria, was the home of Koubi’s ancestors, and the poetry of the title captured his imagination as apropos of the work.
Koubi’s exploration addresses the point that the clarity of daytime, of our consciously lived experience, is often examined without acknowledging the more obscured period of subconsciousness that comes before it. For Koubi, the allegory of day and night parallels the immigrant experience; just as we forget our dreams, so the immigrant generations forget their roots. As he told the Willamette Week back in January, “The piece couldn’t have another name.”
It begins in a dark haze. Dancers in white cloth lie on the floor, their bodies draped over one another like a pile of bed linens. Arms reach up and stretch as if waking. When the lights slowly brighten, limbs become discernibly the exclusive possession of individual bodies as each gains independence, verve, and momentum. The image is powerful: for Koubi it’s the North African diaspora and especially his own family’s journey.
Koubi was born in Cannes, France, and had assumed his ancestors had called the country home as well. His name is Hervé after all, “as French as it gets, like François or Jacques,” he jokes during the post-show talk in August [translated by Bernard Schmidt]. But at the age of twenty-five he learned the truth about his family’s history. His father, near the end of his life, showed him a photo of an old man adorned in traditional Arabic dress and told him it was his great-grandfather, a man who spoke only one language. And it wasn’t French.
“When my parents came to France after the events of Algeria, they wanted to be more French than the French,” Koubi wrote in an email interview with the Rail [translated from the French by the author]. “They razed their past and reconstructed their lives. It was into this new French life that I was born. The approach I had to Algeria with this project is rather an Orientalist vision where I, born in France, wanted to give life to my dreams of the orient.”
Koubi’s words sound the alarm of 19th-century Orientalism à la Delacroix or Ingres—of Saïd’s theory of fantasy, projection, and exoticizing of the “other.” Fortunately, Koubi avoided the trap. He knew sitting back in his French studio and imagining his ancestral homeland at a distance would be a disservice to the piece and to himself. So Koubi went to Algeria to choreograph and hold auditions, and didn’t return to France for almost four years. It was an immersion “six or seven times the amount of time needed to create a piece,” Koubi noted during the post-show talk.
His welcome was initially lukewarm. Despite his commitment to the project and his first-prize award at a dance festival in Algeria, Koubi was mistrusted as a French choreographer working with Algerian dancers.
“The project was born from nothing,” Koubi said in the post-show talk. “No one invited me to Algeria; no one sent me to Algeria. [The company] couldn’t even get a free studio. The first rehearsals took place in terraces on top of houses, in garages, or in gymnasiums in the middle of the night.”
But Koubi was undeterred. He has a recipe for this artistic research into his roots. “The first ingredient: love for the project; maybe it’s excessive, but it’s not up to me to say if it’s sincere or not. The second is time: like a gardener.” The third, Koubi (having earned a degree in Pharmacology before his dance career) conceptualizes as an egalitarian chemistry within company: he presents “not [his] dancers, but found-brothers.”
When 249 men and one woman showed up to the first audition, the choice to have all male dancers presented itself organically—though Koubi admitted a preference to working with men. This robust male cast connects to Jacob’s Pillow’s history, as founder Ted Shawn’s company of all male dancers was widely recognized as having successfully challenged the norms of masculinity in American dance. Koubi noted via email, “There is no ambiguity concerning the place of men in my project. The dancers with whom I work are all first men who dance. In Middle Eastern/North African culture there is a very concrete relationship between men; touch and brotherhood are all without ambiguity and that is what I wanted to cultivate in this piece.”
Rather than trying to distill a singular “traditional” form of Algerian dance to incorporate into his choreography, Koubi began with the talents of the dancers he found there: street dancing, b-boying, break-dancing, capoeira, hip-hop, gymnastics. It wasn’t a regionally specific style, but rather a youthful global culture of dance shared in the streets and on the internet. It was from these organic roots that Koubi crafted the piece, gilding the performers’ craft with allusions to Maghreb and European traditions. The Algerian dancers appreciated the process.
As I walked through the Jacob’s Pillow campus down to the outdoor stage to see what was happening before Compagnie Hervé Koubi’s performance that evening, a few young guys stepped aside on the path: “après-vous.” I thanked them and paused at this group of buff French speaking men: “Are you dancing tonight in What the Day Owes to the Night?” We got to chatting1 and set up an interview for the next day, before finding our places to watch Preeti Vasudevan and her collective perform a modern take on Bharatanatyam Indian classical dance.
Mohamed Medelsi, a young dancer part of a “new generation” in the company, discussed his origins as a street dancer and the switch to performing on a stage for a paying audience: “[I started] in the street, between friends, in groups, breakdance competitions,” Medelsi said. “We began to look for work with this. We found what we searched for, especially in Algeria, and in France and Tunisia, almost. But it’s our first time working like this. It’s different. We change all the styles.”
After joining the company, the street dancers added ballet, contemporary, yoga, and other disciplines to their repertoires. Koubi himself is trained in classical ballet and contemporary dance, and honed his skills at the Centre de Danse International Rosella Hightower in Cannes and then with the Opéra de Marseille. Although he sets out with established choreography from the beginning, Koubi says the process is more of an “ongoing conversation and exchange,” in which he assumes the role of “architect” and works with the movement vocabulary of his dancers.
“I think what’s very important is to disappropriate, make [the dance] belong to the dancers and then to you [the public],” Koubi said in the post-show talk.
As viewers and especially as critics, we worry that someone presenting culture internationally might be tempted to offer a diluted version, an unnaturally universal rendering, that would increase the odds of its ready acceptance abroad. Koubi mostly manages to avoid this trap as well. At first blush, the production elements appear to be prototypically North African in music and costume. A closer look and listen, however, reveals that the production elements are a reflection of Koubi’s cross-Mediterranean background. The costumes—white cotton pants with panels hanging in the front and back—draw from a combination of Greek, Roman, Persian, and Arab styles. The music contains excerpts of Bach’s St. John Passion, Sufi music, allusions to Vivaldi, and a re-orchestration of traditional music by Hamza El Din, the Algerian composer, performed by the Kronos Quartet. The movement bursts forth from the production elements with a palette that bridges East and West.
The dancers move between moments of high energy—synchronized back flips and aerials—to more staccato control. Dancers balance on one arm in a side-plank and then suddenly drop their arms, jump up, lurch forward, and rock back—freezing their momentum. As the cycle of a new circadian rhythm begins, day gives way to night, and the lights warm to a dusky orange. A few dancers pair up as one steps on the thigh of the other, lifting his leg overhead. Concentration consolidates and the steps thud with grounded repetition. The men seem to take on movements of a battle ritual. Physical quotations of the Brazilian martial art of capoeira are cited as dancers swing their legs up and their partners crouch low below. They sway in natural rhythm and move on their hands in slow motion.
Koubi creates a visual parallel between b-boy head-spins—revolving a gasp-worthy number of times—and the upright meditative whirling dervishes of Sufism. In the end, a more deliberate embodiment of the dervishes appears as the dancers lift one palm up and face the other down, as per the ritual. Much of this spirituality comes from the sheer physicality and risk among the group. A cluster of dancers toss one body up in the air; the dancer hovers his body in a downward parabola. Later we see a variation in which the group lifts one dancer by the feet. Standing vertically, the dancer shifts forward as those supporting him run upstage; he dives and is caught.
Repetition can be a kind of meditation, yet at some points, the choreography loses flavor as the audience becomes desensitized to the physical feats and choreographic devices. After a sustained stanza of high energy, an engaging slow-walking interval is welcomed, posing a striking and provocative contrast after so much primal intensity.
The piece concludes as the final cycle of night arrives. The dancers return to a shared connection to one another. One dancer reads a text and his voice reverberates in Arabic: “I went there,” “ ,” a line translated from a poem written by Koubi in French. The choreographer went to Algeria to search for his identity and returned with his dancers and his dance.
- (Dancer Mourad Messaoud pulled out his phone and showed me his YouTube channel to illustrate.)
GILLIAN JAKAB is the dance editor of the Brooklyn Rail.