Compagnie Hervé Koubi
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
February 18, 2020
Les nuits barbares ou les premiers matins du monde (The Barbarian Nights, or the First Dawns of the World)
During City Center’s Fall for Dance 2018, one of the programs I saw included a dance performed by Compagnie Hervé Koubi, an excerpt from a larger piece titled The Barbarian Nights, or the First Dawns of the World (“Barbarian Nights”). Its subject was the evolution of cultural identity told from the point of view of people of Northern Africa, and the world referenced was that of the Mediterranean. In my subsequent review, I marveled at the way choreographer and Artistic Director Koubi presented his vision (or re-vision) and at the extraordinary performances by his dancers, and looked forward to the company’s return with the complete dance.
Compagnie Hervé Koubi returned this past week with the complete piece (and with its French title: Les nuits barbares ou les premiers matins du monde), which I saw on the opening night of its week-long engagement at the Joyce Theater. I still enjoy the piece and the company’s exceptional dancers, but the added length – not that it’s very long: the dance in its entirety lasts about an hour (by contrast, the FFD excerpt was about 20 min.) – dilutes it and makes the whole somewhat less focused. But it’s still a marvel, the quality of the all-male company’s fourteen “dance artists” is exceptional, and the novelty of seeing the issue from the point of view of the “invaded” rather than the “invaders” is by concept alone a revelation. Think about it. Columbus discovered America; but at the same time, Native Americans discovered Columbus and Columbian culture. Who is the barbarian: the invaded, or the invaders? Barbarian Nights not only turns the tables; it turns it in the direction of those whose voices have previously been muted.
The story told is no less than a cultural history of a group of people, the Mediterraneans, who assimilate the culture and the genes that were imposed on them, and the resulting population assimilates another set of culture and genes imposed on them, and the cycle repeats over and over again for thousands of years. Koubi and his company’s dancers relates the creation and recreation of the world of Mediterranean peoples through multiple overlapping scenes that flow from one to the other without clearly delineated boundaries (scenes). And why should there be – what Koubi is describing is a continuing process: cultural and physical evolution.
I’m impressed by the intellectual component in any dance, and the intelligence behind this piece drew me to it immediately. For the same reason I appreciated Koubi’s program notes in which he relates his intent, and in which he also explores his own multi-faceted background which in a concise, limited way mirrors the cultural assimilation with which he infuses his dance. [Koubi is of Algerian decent, born in Cannes, France; his mother is Muslim his father is Jewish; and his skin is white, reflecting the “barbarians” who came to North Africa from Europe.] “Who were the Barbarians,” Koubi writes, “storming in from the North, the mysterious people of the sea….Who were these Barbarians of the East, these Persians, Ionias, Babylonians, and Arabo-Muslims? Which unknown, forgotten, reworked, assimilated, or erased histories have we inherited?”
When the audience first views the cast, they’re wedded to the ground (e.g., their movement is slow, and kept close to the ground) as if representing natives of whatever land surrounds them, but their heads and faces are covered in silver-looking masks (actually, Swarovski crystals) with “horns” protruding from the tops of their heads, which made them appear like an armored invading force. They looked both freakish and fear-inducing, and it wasn’t clear to me at the dance’s outset whether the people first seen are the land’s existing inhabitants, or some invading army. I initially thought this lack of clarity was a mistake, but the more I thought of it, the more I came to recognize that it’s a perfectly valid way to view cultural assimilation: it impacts both the invaded and the invader. Assimilation cuts both ways.
The initial evidence of the assimilation is the removal of the silver masks, as one by one the dancers either remove the armor themselves, or someone else pulls it off. During this period, some of the mask-wearers pull the horns out from the top of their mask. Subsequently, perhaps during some subsequent physical “invasion,” these horns become daggers with which the assimilated group defends itself against new invaders, or subjugates neighboring native populations. Later invasions are marked by the use of long, stick-like weapons (symbolizing swords?), which evolve and are metaphorically assimilated into canes which the newly assimilated populace uses for support, and still further into religious symbols. Brilliant.
While it has a dominant position in the dance, the simulated violence is not violence per se, but a catalyst for change. Cultural assimilation, being awakened by the Barbarian culture (regardless of who is considered the barbarian) is more significant than the implicit aggression created by the presence of knives and swords. Koubi presents this cultural and physical assimilation more subtly. First by varying the dance forms from one culture to another. I’ll get to that momentarily. But he also does it through music. Essentially, Koubi’s assembled score mixes excerpts of classical music with excerpts of “Mediterranean” and contemporary music. Using classical music together with other music forms isn’t so unusual, but Koubi’s purpose — to use music as a metaphor for cultural “invasion” and assimilation, is. There’s Mozart (“Requiem in D Minor,” K626: Kyrie and Introitus: Requiem) and Faure (“Requiem,” Op. 48: Introit et Kyrie); there’s music by contemporary composers Armand Amar (a French composer who grew up in Morocco and who integrates African music into his work), a composer of music primarily for horror movies (Joseph Bishara), and Howard Shaw, whose work includes scoring films (“Lord of the Rings” and Hobbit trilogies); and there are Gregorian chants. What the selections have in common, despite their differences, is a religio-apocalyptic sense, perfectly appropriate for peoples suffering the fear, and the peace, that accompanies the process of assimilation.
But in using music as an example of cultural invasion and assimilation, Koubi is also stating that, from the viewpoint of the invaded culture, the culture exemplified by the invading hordes (whether “invading” in the usual sense or, as Koubi writes, “fleeing war more often than seeking it”) was a revelation; providing a new way of seeing and thinking. To the natives, each such invasions carried with it the dawn of a new world.
If that were all there was to Les nuits barbares ou les premiers matins du monde, it would have been interesting, even enlightening, but not much of a dance. What makes it not only a dance, but a memorable one, is Koubi’s use of multiple examples of “street dance.” I’m not sure how this supports the general theme beyond vivid images of dancers being elevated above the throng as if they were sighting, guarding against, or awaiting incoming invasions, or being shot skyward as if from a cannon, but propelled by the force of the other dancers, perhaps indicating a desire to see what’s on the other side of the world. Arguably, the street dance exclamations represent the impact of cultural assimilation on the people in general, as opposed to some ruling class or intellectual or cultural elite. These are street people, Koubi appears to be saying, not nobles, who assimilate the initially alien culture and make it part of their own.
Regardless of motivation, the dancing is spectacular. I once commented in a review of another FFD program that the ability to spin upside down on one’s head not just for brief effect or to look different, but for maximum impact and to look artistic, is not all that different from a ballerina pirouetting en pointe. The artistic quality is similar, but Koubi’s dancers take it to a higher level (as ballerinas and danseurs often do), displaying bravura examples of dance at its best. These multiple “street pirouettes” last as long as ballerina turns (or male turns a la seconde), but the impact is greater because it looks so unusual: as I observed following the FFD excerpt, the company’s dancing has a tribal elegance to it. At times, these dancers look like a pack of whirling dervishes, but with their bodies upside down and their plain-looking pantaloon-like costumes (designed by Guillaume Gabriel) that rise to their mid-bodies while they spin, in the process looking like an upside down tutu – perhaps reflecting their world turned upside down.
As I mentioned at the outset, this complete version of Barbarian Nights feels more diffuse than the abbreviated version presented at FFD, because Koubi adds layers of cultural invasion that support his point, but that don’t really add anything new. But in the overall scheme of things, that’s minor. Les nuits barbares ou les premiers matins du monde is worth seeing for Koubi’s vision, and for the fabulous dancing by the company alone. As Koubi so eloquently states, “For over 3000 years our history has witnessed countless cultures whose differences have brought us together….It is this feeling of belonging [being part of the Mediterranean] that is much more ancient than the concept of nations.”