For French choreographer Hervé Koubi, human migration is more than a headline. It’s personal. And it’s at the heart of his work What the Day Owes to the Night (“Ce que le jour doit à la nuit”), coming to the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts on February 17 at 8 p.m.
Koubi was born and raised in France and often questioned his parents about his un-French last name. For the first 25 years of his life they evaded the question. Finally his father divulged the family secret. In 1962, 14 years before Koubi was born, his parents had emigrated from Algeria.
The shock of this discovery sent Koubi on a quest to discover his roots. In 2009, he and Guillaume Gabriel, cofounder and manager of Compagnie Hervé Koubi, flew to Algeria to dig into his family history.
“It was important for Hervé to not only feel the perfume and look at the streets where his parents had walked, he also wanted to meet dancers,” says Gabriel, Koubi’s “art companion” and life partner of 23 years. Given Koubi’s limited English, Gabriel spoke by phone to ArtsATL on behalf of both of them.
Koubi soon envisioned a new work with a new movement vocabulary that reflected his heritage. He auditioned 250 dancers in Algiers. All but one were men. Unlike the academy-trained classical and contemporary dancers in France, they were self-taught and fluent in hip hop and capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art. The street was their stage. They knew how to create a “wow movement,” Gabriel explains.
What they didn’t know was how to dance together, to follow each other, how to be on stage. They had to learn that movement could have meaning. That was difficult for them, Gabriel explains. It took close to a year for them to be able to express something on stage, but whatever rough edges they had were outweighed by their enthusiasm. “French dancers always have a point of view, an idea or perhaps a criticism,” says Gabriel. “These dancers were ready to do whatever Hervé wanted. They were like sponges.”
What the Day Owes to the Night is an hour-long work for 13 men. It’s fluid, athletic, mesmerizing. The men whirl like dervishes and spin on their heads. They climb over each other, catapult each other into space like human trampolines. Bare chested, they wear white skirts over white pants. Gabriel designed the costumes, inspired in part by the Orientalism of painters like Delacroix.
The score is a mix of European and African sounds: Sufi rhythms, sacred music by Bach and works by Egyptian composer Hamza El Din reinterpreted by the Kronos Quartet. “We wanted the music to help create bridges” between the two cultures, Gabriel explains.
They found the title by chance. An Algerian student recommended they read Yasmina Khadra’s novel What the Day Owes the Night, a love story between an Algerian boy and a French girl. “What’s important about the book is not the love story but the representation of France and Algeria and the love and not-love story between the two countries,” Gabriel says. Algeria was a French colony until independence in 1962, the year Koubi’s parents moved to France. Intrigued by Koubi’s family history, Khadra gave them the right to use the title and has seen the piece three times.
Khadra himself is an example of the complex relationship between France and Algeria. His novel was lauded by the French literary world for its insight into Arab women, and it was assumed the author was female. In reality, Khadra is Mohammed Moulessehoul, a veteran Algerian army officer who used a female pen name to avoid censorship by the military. He now lives in France.
What the Day Owes to the Night premiered in France in 2013. “Audiences were amazed by the dancers and what they were able to do,” Gabriel says. The work took Koubi’s company to a new level and has now been performed more than 300 times. “When we created it we had no idea how far it could go. It was just a project that Hervé had to do.”
Leslie Gordon, director at the Rialto, first saw the company in New York in 2015. “I had seen nothing like them before,” she says. “They have created their own dance language.” That along with Koubi’s backstory, she says, “made a deep connection with me and other audience members.” It took her three years to book them; Jacob’s Pillow and other prestigious venues had snapped up the company first.
These days Koubi describes himself as a French-Algerian choreographer and continues to work with and train Algerian street dancers. In 2015 he created a new work similarly inspired by his heritage. Les nuits barbares, ou les premiers matins du monde (“Barbarian Nights, or The First Mornings of the World”) had its US premiere in January.
Koubi is proud to be French, Gabriel says, “but has a part of Africa in him. He found a kind of brotherhood with the Algerian dancers, a way to live together. This is his vision. To create bridges between us through dance.”