Compagnie Herve Koubi's What the Day Owes to the Night conjures a mesmerizing world

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      A Compagnie Hervé Koubi production. A DanceHouse presentation. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday, April 7. Continues April 8

      There's a transcendent moment in What the Day Owes to the Night when the sight of men whirling like Sufis gives way to others who spin upside down, on their heads, hip-hop style. It's the ancient giving way to the modern, the spiritual giving way to the street-smart. But each version of human top is as entrancing as the other, white skirt-pants fluttering out like sails around the dancers.

      The presentation last night—which met with a warm, extended standing O—felt like an experience larger than a dance show. That's in part because choreographer Hervé Koubi took the time to share the story behind his creation. At the top of the evening, the Cannes-based artist explained how he had always believed he had French heritage until he was 25, when his father suddenly revealed his Algerian roots. What the Day Owes to the Night is the result of his ensuing journey to his parents' homeland, where he recruited a troupe of performers who had never been to dance school, but did hip-hop and capoeira in the streets and on the country's beaches.

      You can feel the brotherhood he's formed with these committed, insanely chiselled, bare-chested young men, and it's moving.

      What's most striking about the work is its mix of raw muscularity and incredible grace. The men effortlessly pull off back flips, top spins, handstands, and cartwheels, but always as part of Koubi's sculptural formations.

      In the program notes, the choreographer speaks of being inspired by North African architecture, lace, and art, and you can see that poetic Arabic style in the movement, patterning, and tableaux. Sometimes the dappled light reminds you of rays darting in through high mosque windows; other times it evokes the half light of a desert sunrise.

      But the most powerful element of the piece is the dancers themselves. In an interview before the show came to town, Koubi's artistic collaborator Guillaume Gabriel explained that because the performers are not school-trained, they dance not for entertainment or show. They simply dance, because they have to. This brings the work an authenticity and passion that is hard to describe. The movement is raw and muscular, but sometimes balletic: witness some gorgeous lifts or the tangling of bodies linked by hands. Set to everything from the oud to baroque music, the dance circles and repeats, often reaching an almost hypnotic or prayerlike state despite its flashes of intense physicality. If you can lose yourself in that meditative state, time and geographical space will cease to exist for the hourlong performance.

      There are glimpses of stories here, seeming slices of Algeria's past. The work draws its name from a book about a conflicted young Algerian soldier during the former French colony's war for independence. There is imagery of death, of a body being lifted then tumbling down lifeless, shrouded in his flowing skirt-pants; and there are calmer scenes of brotherhood, laying lazily at sunset in each other's laps.

      What's unsaid, but what resonates, is the work's messages about cultures joining together in today's divided world. Our divided times came into relief at the beginning of the show, when it was announced that some of the company's North African dancers could not get visas for this North American tour, so the show would be performed with an ensemble of 10 instead of 12. Though that absence hung over the work, it did not diminish the effect—an effect that came not out of theatrics, but out of the human soul.