This past fall, several Bay Area choreographers presented work that featured male casts and focused on gender issues, particularly the perception of masculinity in our culture. With its 12-member cast comprised of 11 men, Risa Jaroslow’s Resist/Surrender investigated power and vulnerability in maleness. Similarly, James Graham’s Homeroom, performed by Graham and Sebastian Grubb, exposed the many facets of masculinity, including tenderness and playfulness.
For the past 7 years, French Algerian choreographer Hervé Koubi has been working primarily with 12 male dancers, who will perform What The Day Owes To The Night at ODC this weekend. Yet, for Koubi, the piece is not so much a study of gender but rather a quest for origins and identity.
Koubi, who holds a PhD in clinical biology, grew up in France where he trained in ballet, jazz and contemporary dance. It is later, at age 25, that he learned he had Algerian origins. Until then, his understanding of Algeria was through the Orientalist prism of Western culture, and mainly influenced by 19th century Orientalist painters and writers. So upon learning about his ancestors, Koubi decided to confront his preconceived perceptions of Algeria by visiting the country and selecting a group of dancers to work with. Four years later, he premiered What The Day Owes To The Night, whose title is borrowed from writer Yasmina Khadra’s novel. Similar to Koubi’s process of discovering his place between two worlds, Khadra’s novel tells the story of a boy who grows up within a French-Algerian family and slowly discovers his country from the perspectives of both cultures.
Of the 250 dancers who attended Koubi’s audition in Algiers in 2009, 249 were men, which influenced Koubi’s decision on a male cast. The majority of the dancers were highly versed in hip hop and capoeira, but Koubi ultimately chose to work with the dancers who demonstrated the ability to be “porous and available to other dance practices,” he explained in French via email. “The dancers I chose were not stuck within a particular technique or aesthetic.”
Koubi mentions the “horizontal relationship” he has with the dancers, who are listed as “choreographic artists” in the program. “I like to call this group of dancers mes frères retrouvés [my found-again brothers]. The bond that we have is not a typical choreographer-dancer one. We have a real human connection.” Since 2009, the company has created 6 pieces which are the product of the dancers’ creative response to Koubi’s choreographic propositions.
What The Day Owes To The Night is a journey into the unknown and an exploration of differences, not only for Koubi but also for the dancers. Most of them, trained in the streets, were used to hip hop shows and battles, where “the energy is intense but usually concentrated within a short period of time. Dancing with the other is not the priority,” Koubi shared. The dancers had to practice endurance, attention and clarity to perform a piece like What The Day Owes To The Night, which lasts one hour. They had to learn to dance together, listen to each other and develop “a musicality of the body rather than one dictated by a melody or an even beat.”
Koubi’s journey into familiarizing himself with the culture of his ancestors has helped him better understand his parents. “They had wanted to raise me in a Western way but hadn’t lost their roots. They had kept this little body accent, this attitude, which somehow were not in harmony with the image that they wanted to convey,” he explained. It has also helped him discover “the formidable fraternity that exists within [Algerian] culture and that can overcome the hardest challenges.” The past few years of discovery have also reminded him that “each culture contains beauty. The greatness of a civilization derives from the mélange of cultures, not from the claim to a singular identity.”