The French choreographer Hervé Koubi was searching for his roots when he first travelled to the former French colony of Algeria. But what he has found was not the country his parents left behind but something new: a thrilling realm of physical frontiers and cultural riches created by Koubi and his troupe of Algerian and North African dancers.
“What I have discovered is there are a lot of links between cultures, and much fewer borders,” Koubi, 42, said this week at a café in Miami’s Buena Vista East neighborhood. “I often say we belong to each other in a way that is much older than nations.”
His Compagnie Hervé Koubi, which has captivated audiences from Europe to the Americas, performs Saturday at the Olympia Theater in downtown Miami, part of MDC Live Arts “Ojala, Inshallah: Wishes From the Muslim World” season exploring Muslim culture.
The outlines of Koubi’s story have been traced by thousands in Miami. His parents fled Algeria’s brutal, chaotic 1954-1962 war of independence with France, and said nothing of their history to their French-born son. “My parents chose France,” Koubi says. “They had to separate themselves from their origins.”
He grew up thinking that his parents were from the many French families who had settled in Algeria in the 19th century. They didn’t speak Arabic at home (except, he told the New Yorker, when they argued), and his Algerian grandparents were dead. “They gave me a very French name,” he says. “I had very light skin.”
But at 25, Koubi’s father shocked him with a photo of his grandfather in traditional Arab garb, and he began questioning who he was. For a decade he tried to convince his parents to travel to Algeria with him. Finally, in 2009, he went by himself. As a dancemaker, he decided to connect through dance, and held an audition where he was astonished by 250 male dancers, who’d learned break dancing and capoeira from youtube and each other.
Like many others from the traditional art world who fell in love with the unadulterated realness of hiphop dance, art and music, Koubi, who had worked in contemporary dance, was captivated by these men’s authenticity.
“They weren’t used to dancing in front of a mirror,” he said. “They danced for each other. They learned from their bodies and in the street. They are not pretending onstage. They are men dancing.”
He chose 12, launching the company in his home city of Cannes in 2010. (The mostly Algerian troupe is on its second generation of dancers, who also include one man from Burkina Faso, two from Morocco and a Frenchman.) They give Koubi their lush strength, daring and extraordinary virtuosity: spinning on their heads, flying through the air, as comfortable on hands and shoulders as they are on their feet. As the choreographer, Koubi creates the ideas and the “architecture.” But he could not build the work without them.
“They allow me to make things that are very strong and new,” he says. “It’s important the dancers make the movement their own. So the piece no longer belongs to me. The message passes through the dancers. But the feelings have to be true.”
The company has been acclaimed for its wow-inducing virtuosity as well as its artistry, performing in U.S. dance centers like New York City and Jacobs Pillow, and around Europe. The New York Times called What the Day Owes to the Night, the work they’ll perform in Miami, “a hybrid, not so much timeless as time-traveling.”
In its imagery, its music – which ranges from Bach to Sufi – and its inspiration, What the Day Owes to the Night bridges West and East (or, as Koubi says, Occidentalist and Orientalist), Algeria and France. It also reflects the romantic images that European artists, and specifically the French painter Delacroix, have created of the “Orientalist” culture of North Africa and the Middle East – an outgrowth of Koubi’s own complicated relationship with his two countries. (He was delighted to find that the Olympia Theater’s Deco Era Hollywood Middle Eastern décor reflected a similar kind of cultural fantasy.) He calls What the Day Brings to the Night “a journey in our mutual history.”
That complex cultural exploration, and the troupe itself, are a potent symbol in an era when millions of refugees are fleeing to Europe from strife in Libya, Syria and Africa, tension echoes between the Muslim and Western worlds, and hostility towards immigrants in the United States is growing. (The difficulties that post-war Algerian immigrants have had in France, struggling for acceptance and often isolated in slums, seems to mark the start of Europe’s problems with Muslims and shares elements of the U.S.’s long conflict over racism.) After a recent performance in Mexico, Koubi says people spoke of how the history of mingled tension and connection between the United States and Mexico mirrored the fraught relationship between Algeria and France.
More than ever, Koubi feels that his personal odyssey, and the journey he is making with these dancers, are connected to what is happening in the world.
“Even if my story with Algeria is personal, the need to know our roots is universal,” he says. “We need to know where we come from and where we are going.”
Compagnie Herve Koubi performs What the Day Owes to the Night at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Olympia Theater, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami 33131, 305-374-2444. Tickets are $25 – $55 (plus fees) at olympiatheater.org. More info at mdclivearts.org or 305-237-3010.