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Are They Acrobats, Martial Artists or Dancers? All of the Above

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Feb 14, 2020

The all-male Compagnie Hervé KOUBI brings its hybrid style to the Joyce


Hervé Koubi's pharmacology degree may not impact his work as a choreographer, but it's a telling indication that he has followed an unusual path in his career. Raised in southern France, he studied dance as well as biology in college, then continued his training in ballet and contemporary technique in Cannes and Marseille, which led to work as a performer and choreographer. But a deep dive into his family background is what inspired him to create his signature style, a striking mix of martial arts, capoeira and street dance, which is the specialty of his all-male troupe Compagnie Hervé KOUBI, performing at The Joyce Theater February 18 to 23.

Growing up, Koubi knew nothing about the source of his surname or his family's heritage. His grandparents had all died before he was born, and his parents were not forthcoming about their emigration from Algeria, embracing French culture wholeheartedly. Then when he was in his early twenties, his father showed him a weathered photo of his great-grandfather in traditional Arabic garb. Suddenly, he was jolted into a new awareness: "It was a shock for me," he recalls, realizing, "I was not from France, but from Africa."

Compelled to explore his cultural heritage, he scheduled a trip to Algeria in 2009 "to find my roots," he says. "When I went there, I asked the French Institute to tell me where I could find dancers. They told me, 'There are no dancers in Algeria. Good luck!'" But after emailing a few contacts, he got the word out that he was looking for dancers.

At the audition he held, 250 dancers—all men save one—showed up. "They were all street dancers, not contemporary or classical dancers," Koubi explains. "I found a new language." Some of them had never performed on a traditional stage, so "that was very challenging, but very interesting also, and allowed me to better know my art."

In 2010, Koubi made his first work for those men. Today the troupe, which is based in the French town of Brive-la-Gaillarde, numbers 15, all street dancers from Algeria, Morocco and Burkina Faso, as well as Italy, Israel and France.

For the Joyce run, the company is presenting Les nuits barbares ou les premiers matins du monde (The Barbarian Nights, or the First Dawns of the World), a 75-minute work that showcases the dancers' daring and eclectic skills. The men—mostly bare chested, sometimes sporting glittery horned masks—perform explosive sequences of athletic moves, including head spins, flying leaps and flips. Often the ensemble works together, tossing a man high into the air and then catching him, or twirling in mesmerizing patterns. At other times, there's a sense of competition in head-to-head solos.

Elements of martial arts are apparent, especially capoeira. "They became part of my choreographic style because I explored them though my dancers," Koubi says. "I love these springs of energy in the jumps. These dancers give so much commitment when they are doing all these acrobatics that they can only be true and sincere. I found a mesmerizing energy in the dancers in Algeria and Morocco—a will to express themselves through dance that I didn't experience in France."

Koubi describes Barbarian Nights, which explores the cultures of the Mediterranean basin, as "a tribute to the barbarians in the etymological sense, presented in the light of recent historical discoveries. For me, it does not matter that we are from France, Algeria, Italy, Morocco. I am firmly convinced that we have a belonging that is older than the nations. I want to transcend individual nationalities to say that together we can build something, we can dance together, we can overcome all the borders that divide us."

That's a powerful sentiment, especially with the immigration crisis stoking xenophobia. Koubi says his dancers, who are working in France legally, view Europe as "a kind of El Dorado." Yet discrimination still rears its ugly head. "Sometimes we are not allowed to rehearse in a place because they say it's only for classical dance, for instance," Koubi says. "We had to prepare our run for the Joyce outside, with no roof above our heads. Fortunately, the weather was nice, but it's really a shame for a company that tours worldwide not to have a decent place to rehearse in its own city."


Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.

Top image: Compagnie Hervé KOUBI in Les nuits barbares ou les premiers matins du monde. Photo Yann Gouhier.

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Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.