The Capacity To Soar Above

A couple of hours after experiencing Hervé Koubi’s choreographed defiance of neat and sterilized political boundaries, What The Day Owes To The Night continues to spin in my head and ripple throughout my body. This production unfurled from a deeply personal space, exploring cross-cultural intersections between masculinity, identity, and colonialism.   

The journey began when, at 25 years of age, Koubi’s father showed him a photograph of his great grandfather, an old Algerian man dressed in modest traditional Algerian clothing. I imagine that the photo came from that time when the French Colonial grip on Algeria encouraged shame and/or fear, often leading many to de-emphasize or deny any heritage linking them to a place devastated by France, which occupied Algeria from 1830 until 1962. Instead, immigrants often sought to bury their stories of trauma in order to better assimilate into the nation towards which they fled—the same nation that devastated their home country.  

Koubi explores all this not through words like I’m employing here, but rather via the bodies of twelve male dancers flowing and distilling identity politics into a potent performance.

Through their bodies, these dancers re-assert the humanity that French colonialists sought to deny Algerians.

Staged against stark white floors that dissolve into black curtain edges, the opening scene begins dark and hazy with an ethereal fog — almost not even present. The light grows ever so slowly, revealing a mass in the center of the stage, which at first resembles a nest of snakes, or wispy wild wool in a bowl of swirling knotted woodgrain waiting to be spun. Delicately, the light fades in and the fog dissipates.  

Their entangled limbs and bodies stirring, uncoiling, rising and moving away from each other. The once indiscernible mass has unraveled into twelve young felicitously fit French-Algerian and Burkina Faso dancers, who lead the spectator on a dynamic voyage over the course of 70 entrancing minutes. They are storytellers weaving intersections between worlds with woven-together movements. They reflect a mix of capoeira, hip-hop, acrobatics, and contemporary dance, while embodying the Sufi mystics who whirl round and round in meditation.

The minimalist design extends to the costumes. Layered white on white, a flowing dual apron over pants proved to be greatly versatile in narrative function, at times androgynous, religious, while underscoring a masculine rebellion. The garb reacts to actions like fast kicks with the crack of snapping cotton layers.

Broad bare-chested men marching in all directions suggests masculine mobilization through the Casbah that proved impenetrable to the French. Through their bodies, these dancers re-assert the humanity that French colonialists sought to deny Algerians. These dancers achieve this through a production that acknowledges tradition while asserting a growing devotion to shedding shame and celebrating a beauty that typically remains shrouded in orthodoxy. Such reactive aesthetics and styles are inherent to common Orientalism-informed depictions of the still today subjugated.

Several times, dancers would run up a ramp of bodies functioning like scaffolding to hone focus on the capacity of these bodies to soar above, to fly, to be free.

The sound design mixes together the otherworldly textures of Kronos Quartet, Bach, and infusions of human intonations — agonized Baroque voices. The oud (an Arabic plucked-string instrument) of Hamza El Din underscores the stronger proud movements. Other times his voice evoked that place I visited over childhood summers in the Mediterranean where the sand carried the blistering breezes of the scirocco. Winds from the Sahara that scratch skin into leather would chap and sting my face.

These sounds combine with those of Sufi devotional practices that inform at the very least the resilience of the human spirit – exemplified by the dervish whirl, sometimes on their feet, but most impressively on their heads. The use of this traditional Sufi spirituality comes in to facilitate moments of calm, revealing the beauty that holds all the chaos that humans create through violence. The spiritual and/or reverential quality of much of the textures in the sound design suggest Koubi’s respect and admiration for his roots that he so beautifully explores through the corporeal.

The sound combines impeccably with the simple, unimposing yet powerful lighting that suggests and moves both dancers and spectators through ornamental Moorish aesthetics—imagine dancers atop patterned splashes of diamonds cast on the stage. In other moments, the light bleaches and oppressively consumes all the elements of the stage, like a battalion of French soldiers looming and menacing, cloaked in uniforms of state-legitimated domination and violence.

The lighting design by Lionel Buzonie offers relief too, at times softening to qualities suggesting the pearl luminance of the moon, later the blazing warmth of the scirocco sun, and back to a resilient reflective space.

La Compagnie Herve Koubi spinning on their heads in What the Day Owes the Night. Photo by Kari Mamar.
La Compagnie Herve Koubi spinning on their heads in What The Day Owes To The Night. Photo by Kari Mamar.

France and Algeria still have a relationship connected via colonialism as well as rebellion against it. What The Day Owes To The Night celebrates the magnanimity of the human spirit via dancers who move through an arc that begins in union, moves through upheaval, and ends with a reflective tone in the resolution.   

This piece stirred much more in me than I can make clear sense of now. I had flashes to stories from Moorish Europe, Camus’ The Stranger and Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. These texts came from the Mediterranean, a body that both separates and connects North (Europe) and South (Africa). My family comes from this intersection and divide.

The end of the performance is blackness, a silence more reflective than deafening. The audience held that silence and it felt vast. The eruption into applause was unanimous and before the house lights could reveal it, everyone was on their feet in ovation.

What The Day Owes To The Night presented by White Bird sold out for all three dates and will not be extended, ending tonight.

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