French dance artist Hervé Koubi went to Algeria in 2009 in search of his own cultural heritage. And what he discovered after heading over the Mediterranean Sea to the former colony has had a profound effect on both his art and his life.
“He wanted to find his roots, and he found maybe more: he found brothers,” says Compagnie Hervé Koubi cofounder, choreographic assistant, and long-time friend Guillaume Gabriel.
Speaking to the Straight from Maui, where the French troupe is doing classes and performances, he’s referring to the 12 male dancers—11 Algerians and one from Burkina Faso—whom Koubi ended up recruiting to his company on that trip. They appear here in What the Day Owes to the Night (Ce que le jour doit à la nuit), a dreamlike, intensely physical, street-dance-inflected conjuring of Koubi’s North African origins.
But first, it’s important to back up a bit. Gabriel, who’s talking to the Straight as the stronger English speaker of the duo, met the Cannes-born Koubi before he had any idea about his Algerian heritage. Both were young students, Koubi immersed in pharmacology training, Gabriel in business and banking. Koubi was already heavily into dance, and he encouraged Gabriel to try it out. “I was not dancing till I was 23,” Gabriel says with a laugh. “I only had danced for fun in discotheques. But Hervé said, ‘You’re gifted; you should take ballet class.’ So I took one, then two, then three. And then I gave up my former life of business school.”
Koubi had been dancing for other troupes, but soon Gabriel was helping him set up his own company and pursue his own choreography, based in Cannes. It wasn’t until the late 2000s that Koubi’s focus took a sudden turn toward North Africa.
“When he was 25 he found out that he had Algerian roots,” Gabriel explains. “He was asking his father ‘Where do we come from?’ and ‘Koubi doesn’t sound like a French name.’ Then one day his father showed him this picture of an old man dressed in Arabic style and he told him, ‘That’s your great-grandfather.’ It was a shock for Hervé and he had to go to Algeria and find his roots.”
Why would a parent hide a child’s cultural heritage from him all those years? The answer illustrates the complicated history between the two countries. Algeria was a colony of France for more than a century before a prolonged, bloody war for independence launched in 1954.
“The story between Algeria and France is not a peaceful story,” Gabriel explains. “Algeria wanted independence. Some Algerians wanted to remain French and some wanted to remain in Algeria. Why Koubi didn’t know anything about his Algerian roots is that his parents wanted to be more French than the French.”
Before their first trip in 2009, Koubi and Gabriel asked the French Institute in Algiers for the names of dance schools or dancers that the company could contact to create a work.
“We were told, ‘There’s no dancers in Algeria, good luck,’ ” Gabriel says. “But we decided to go there anyway. We sent a few messages with Facebook and email saying we were looking for dancers. But we didn’t know where we were going with that project. We just said, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ ”
Koubi set a day of casting, and 250 showed up—249 of them young men. “So the choice was quite clear to work with boys,” Gabriel says with a laugh.
Besides having a definite masculine energy, the piece would require a stylistic shift from Koubi’s more contemporary choreography. Most of the dancers had backgrounds in hip-hop and capoiera, hyperphysical forms that are visible in What the Day Owes to the Night.
“We asked those dancers to make an answer to the choreography we showed them,” Gabriel explains. “It was not so much a change [from what Koubi was doing before] as I think it was more of what he was looking for.”
The result, which travels to Vancouver this weekend, is a heady mix of music, physicality, and imagery. The men tumble, fly, and spin with bare chests and flowing, long white skirt-pants that allude to dervish or Arab-style robes. It draws its title from a 2008 novel by Yasmina Khadra (the nom de plume of Algerian army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul) about a conflicted young man during his country’s war for independence. The soundtrack is a mix of Sufi rhythms, Johann Sebastian Bach counterpoint, and hypnotic oud-driven music by Nubian composer Hamza El Din (played by the Kronos Quartet).
But it’s much more, too. There’s an intensity and authenticity that arise directly from the North Africans who are performing it, Gabriel says.
“If you are working with French dancers or European dancers you are working with people who have been taught dance,” Gabriel tries to explain. “With this, it was more: these were also men who dance. They are not just pretending to be; they are just men on-stage. So the most interesting thing is not to have dancers on-stage, but to have real men on-stage with their real cultural background. Not that we ever want them to have Arabic or ‘Oriental’ style. But with only dancers only from France I doubt it would have the same impact or weight.”
Though the resulting work makes no political claim, Gabriel stresses, it clearly offers a vision of cross-cultural reconciliation that takes on new power in these badly divided times—both in Europe and here in North America.
“That is something he really wants: to put people together and try to unify people and never forget we have a belonging that is older than nations,” Gabriel says of his artistic partner. “Too often we are split between Catholics and Muslims and Jews and North Africans and Europeans and black and white.
“We are historically blind to see that we could and should live together.”
DanceHouse presents What the Day Owes to the Night at the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday and Saturday (April 7 and 8).