In 2016 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, French choreographer Hervé Koubi presented his “Ce que le jour doit à la nuit” (“What the Day Owes the Night”), a desert prayer in which Koubi reconnected with his Algerian roots. This weekend, World Music/CRASHarts brought him back in two programs, reprising “Ce que le jour” on Friday and then on Saturday offering “Les nuits barbares, ou les premiers matins du monde” (“Barbarian Nights, or The First Mornings of the World”).
The new piece, which debuted in Koubi’s native Cannes in 2015, is performed by the same company of extraordinary male street dancers that he assembled from a 2009 audition in Algeria. Moving from the spiritual to the historical and political, “Les nuits barbares” is less poetic than “Ce que le jour” but still powerful.
Koubi is using the word “barbares” in the original Greek sense of “foreign.” The “barbarian,” he has said, “is always the other person”; in “Les nuits barbares” he wants to suggest that “our differences bring us together instead of keeping us apart.”
The piece begins in darkness, with what look like fireflies. As the lights come up, these are revealed to be the 12 dancers’ helmet-like masks, which glitter like disco balls and have knife-like horns. Bare-chested, wearing dark skirts over jeans, the dancers are a floor-bound mass of writhing bodies; only when the Algerian music gives way to the Prelude to Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” do they stand and become energized, moving cohesively but not in unison. The horns, it turns out, are detachable; you wonder to what use they’ll be put.
There’s nothing ominous at first. The masks come off, the horn-knives are laid down, and the company breaks out its arsenal of cartwheels, somersaults, forward flips, back flips, breakdance hand spins and head spins. An intense sequence to the Kyrie from the Mozart Requiem leads into a tableau where one dancer comes forward and is surrounded by his knife-wielding fellows. He disappears under their knives, but when his attackers disperse, he’s revealed spinning on his head, as if he, and his culture, were indestructible.
For the second half of this 65-minute piece, the dancers — whose numbers have grown to 13 — bring out long batons and use them like ski poles before starting to toss them back and forth. A second sacrificial victim is throttled by these batons, but he too survives, and the piece concludes to snatches of the Fauré Requiem, one dancer walking on the heads and shoulders of the rest followed by gestures of acceptance and camaraderie.
Sacrificial victims apart, there’s not much sense of “other” in “Les nuits barbares,” or even conflict. But the “first mornings” of the piece’s conclusion attest to what the night owes the day.
Compagnie Hervé Koubi
“Les nuits barbares ou les premiers matins du monde”
Presented by World Music/CRASHarts. At the Institute of Contemporary Art, Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater, Jan. 13.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.