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In the Compagnie of Men: Hervé Koubi’s Barbarians a Theatrical Thrill

by Bonnie Rosenstock
February 29, 2020
The Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue (at the corner of 19th Street)
New York, NY 10011
Hervé Koubi, choreographer of the Cannes-based Compagnie Hervé Koubi, schools us in the meaning of “Barbarian” as “Amazigh,” or the Free Man, which is derived from the indigenous language of the Imazighen people (Berbers) of North Africa. The English definition of “Barbarian” is derogatory: uncivilized, without culture or education, foreign, not Christian. Koubi, 35, learned about ten years ago of his family origins in Algeria (his Jewish father and Muslim mother were settled comfortably in France 14 years before he was born) and speaks no Arabic, but has since been obsessed with his roots and human migration.

With his multi-ethnic “l’equipe,” or team, of 15 men, most of whom come from some part of the Mediterranean basin, Koubi’s 65-minute opus, “Les Nuits Barbares, ou Les Premiers Matins du Monde” (“The Barbarian Nights, or the First Dawns of the World”) (2015) at The Joyce (Feb. 18-23) is a work of raw beauty, violence, brutality, passion, mystery and exceptional dancing about shared destinies, cultural differences and unity. “No matter if we are Algerian, Spanish, French, Greek, we are first and foremost part of the Mediterranean. It is this feeling of belonging that is much more ancient than the concept of nations,” he said.

Out of the dark stage shimmers of light twinkle, like distant stars. As the stage lights come up, these twinkling lights are revealed to be bejeweled masks, with sparkling Swarovski elements that completely cover the performers’ heads and faces, designed by Koubi’s long-time collaborator Guillaume Gabriel. The men huddle together in a tight group and move as one giant undulating amoeba. They spread out, come back together, arms flailing. Movements are fast, slow, up, down, rolling, twisting, turning, music earsplitting. They stand in stillness, facing the audience, then slowly walk across the stage. The men are bare-chested and wear tights with a cloth covering over them. (Later they remove the cloth as well as the masks.)

The men spin on two hands with their legs askew up in the air, skirts billowing, like upside down Dervishes, a move that is oft repeated. Later, they spin on their heads without hands. There are leaps, somersaults, flying leaps into waiting arms, men thrown high into the air from the safety of the tight circle. At some point, some of these masks have donned horns. They dance as a group, break off into duets, others watching in stillness. Slow motion stretches, some dancers slide across the floor, others walk slowly. The movement tempo varies throughout, from fast to slow to stillness, but even in stillness there is movement.

There is a scene of violence, executed almost matter-of-factly. One dancer is surrounded by the others who place a cord with hanging threads around his waist. From these threads the dancers attach swords. The dancer spins faster and faster, swords whirling, gleaming and clinking. Then he’s killed, absorbed within the confines of the group and out of the sight of the audience.

Long sticks become weapons of death as well. At first, the dancers lift up or bend over on them to create beautiful images. They jump over them, toss them in the air to others. They somersault with them. They place them in a T and balance walk with them. Then one performer has them sticking out from his body in a tableaux reminiscent of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, who according to legend was shot through with just four arrows. The last scene is of seven performers slowly carrying a performer on his back, with the 15th walking slowly alone.

The performers are exceptionally athletic, self-taught street dancers that are versed in the language of hip-hop and capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art dance form. From this raw material, Koubi wielded them into a powerful, well-trained force with a movement vocabulary that he created to reflect his heritage.

The musical selections range from classical (Mozart, Fauré, Gregorian chants) to contemporary, including Japanese taiko drumming, percussive Middle Eastern music, flutes, heavy droning and industrial, all in the service of complementing the extensive movement repertoire. These “Barbarians” are a force to be reckoned with. Open the door and let them dance in.

Photo © & courtesy of Didier Philispart

Photo © & courtesy of Didier Philispart

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