Sunday, April 9, 2017

Compagnie Hervé Koubi at the Vancouver Playhouse

DanceHouse closed out its 2016/17 season with the Vancouver premiere of Compagnie Hervé Koubi's Ce que le jour doit à la nuit. The piece takes its title, and draws inspiration, from the 2008 novel by Yasmina Khadra, about the coming of age of a young Algerian boy, Younes, pre- and post-independence from France (the book was made into a film in 2012). Younes is raised by his pharmacist uncle and his uncle's French wife, and it is likely this plot point that carried special resonance for choreographer Koubi, because as we learned in the pre-show talk--and as Koubi additionally announced from the stage just before the raising of the curtain--it was at age 25 that Koubi, who also studied to be a pharmacist and having till that point always believed his ancestry was French through and through, learned that both his maternal and paternal great-grandparents were Algerian.

This revelation prompted a trip to the North African country and former French colony in 2009. Koubi wished to research his roots, but also to audition local dancers for a piece he was developing. Through word of mouth and social media, news of the audition spread and eventually 250 people showed up (249 of whom were men). The twelve dancers eventually chosen (11 Algerian and one from Burkina Faso) were trained neither in traditional Algerian folk dance nor in western contemporary dance; rather, they were mostly street dancers, with a range of self-taught skills drawn from hip hop, capoeira, acrobatics and martial arts. These "found brothers," as Koubi now refers to them, have cohered into a tight unit whose ripped bodies will be unleashed in astonishing and gravity-defying acts of individual athleticism: head spins, back flips, and one-arm cartwheels that in catching air seem to suspend the dancers' bodies for longer than seems physically possible. And yet for all that, no one dancer stands apart from or above the whole group, and the piece is very much about tracing the lines of connection between each body, and the histories shared between them--which, as Koubi indicates in his program notes, includes a history of Orientalist fantasy.

To that end, the piece begins with the dancers (reduced here to ten, about which I will explain in a moment) huddled in a clump, their bodies naked to the waist and wearing dervish-like skirts. Haze floods the stage and as oud-heavy Arabic/Berber music begins to play and the dancers start swaying and undulating their bodies any number of (homoerotic) images of men languishing in hamams, or kasbahs, or hash dens come to mind. Later, when several of the dancers spin on their heads this signature breakdance move simultaneously becomes an upside-down evocation of Sufi whirling courtesy of the side panels of the men's white costumes billowing out horizontally. At the same time, Koubi interrupts such associations with some expressly Christian imagery. For example, twice in the piece one of the dancers, having scrambled to the upstretched arms of two of his confrères, will fall backwards into the awaiting embrace of the rest of the company, the accompanying music from Bach's St. Matthew's Passion reminding one of the entangled legacy of French colonial history in Algeria.

Before introducing Koubi at the start of last night's performance, DanceHouse producer Jim Smith noted that what we were about to see was not in fact the piece as originally conceived by the choreographer and normally performed by the dancers. That is because three company members had been denied travel visas (the company's visit to Vancouver is bracketed by tour dates in Hawai'i and along the west coast of the US. As a result, the work had to be hastily reset, with the nine remaining dancers joined at the last-minute by another performer familiar with the work. It was impossible for me to detect where any re-stitching had occurred, in part I suspect because the piece has its own internal dream-like rhythm, in which the dancers, move-to-move and also between larger group sequences, will often pause, point and thereby re-set the work's perceptual flow--here fast and pounding unison floor drops, there a canon of floating vertical suspensions or partnered leaps and catches. Nevertheless, it was also impossible not to carry Jim's announcement in one's head throughout the show, the "new reality" as we have all too quickly learned to label this post-Trump moment actually a very old and ongoing extension of the colonial project.


No comments: