Dallas — When TITAS director Charles Santos announced the 2017-2018 season last spring, North Texas rejoiced. France’s Compagnie Hervé Koubi would return to Dallas after stunning patrons in 2016 with What the day owes to the night, one of the most talk-about performances of that year. The organization’s promotional image for the last several months only heightened the anticipation. In it, the bare-chested breakdancers from North and West Africa don masks covered with Swarovski crystals, creating a beautiful yet frightening image.
Before their one-night performance at the Winspear Opera House, Santos made the comment that this company not only exhibits artistic excellence but also cultural relevance. It’s worth mentioning that their highly accessible productions feature men from the Arab world that defy convention, and the group’s origin and formation perfectly illustrate that. In an exploration of his African roots, French choreographer Koubi discovered a thriving underground hip-hop dance community in Algeria, completely self-taught through YouTube.
The international success of these dancers and the aforementioned work reinvigorates the continued questioning of what is considered concert dance and what kind of dancer fits (or doesn’t fit) that mold. Koubi’s use of the artists’ street dance vocabulary mixed with contemporary modern shatters stereotypes and expands our understanding of the genre, all while delivering mind-blowing physicality and profound emotion.
Back to the masks. The latest work to bring Dallas to its feet is Les Nuits Barbares ou Les Premiers Matin du Monde (The Barbarous Nights, or the First Dawns of the World), a deeper look into the history of peoples around the Mediterranean and the truth behind historical stereotypes, specifically with those labeled “barbarians.”
As the faint hum of ambient electronic music rises at the opening of the performance, hints of light reflect off the crystal masks. Further illumination reveals 13 shirtless dancers in draped skirts of various colors over fitted denim pants clumped together, with blades sticking out of the masks, imitating horns. Their jerky, reaching movements out of sync with each other beg the question—are they fighting or searching?
One answer places the dancers squarely in that stereotypical, fantastical image of brute force conquerors, while the other humanizes the caricature and makes him more relatable. The roughly 80-minute work manages to combine the best of the two. The performers maneuver through breakdancing freezes, power moves, and jumps with an inhuman level of energy and ferocity, yet they execute it all with compelling authenticity and raw emotion.
Juxtaposing slow walks and stillness with rapid flips, spins, and slides, Koubi’s choreography surprises and dazzles as the dancers expertly walk that fine line between the virtuosic and introspective. Music (arranged by Guillaume Gabriel with direction by Maxime Bodson) blends the classical Western sounds of Mozart, Faure, and Wagner with traditional Algerian music and ties it together with a suspenseful electronic undertone. The mixture fulfills Koubi’s aim of taking audiences on a journey through time, as one feels whisked away to a far-off place and time yet acutely senses the present moment.
A multitude of images not only create a stunning aesthetic but also give the patron something to chew on. The removal of costume pieces draws on that sense of commonality. Dancers take the horns out, then remove the masks, and finally shed the drape to where they’re all wearing the same clothes.
Continuing on the sense of community, a series that can only be described as “group catch and fly” provides some of the more breathtaking moments of the evening. A lone dancer hurls himself toward an ensemble only for them to launch him into the air with reckless abandon.
Let’s not forget the headspins. A staple of the breakdancing world, they’re frequently found in concert hip-hop dance (and Dallas has seen plenty of stunning headspinners), but these men go above and beyond with their level of control and number of revolutions. Especially astonishing is the headspinner completing his maneuver with a belt of blades around his waist.
Much more could be written about their remarkable use of waist-high poles, capoeira and other martial arts-style acrobatics, and breadth of physicality, but perhaps the most striking aspect of their performance is what is noticeably absent.
Not once do they point their feet or extend their bodies gracefully into lines of perfection. Precise articulation of the limbs and torso typical of most contemporary modern seen in TITAS shows doesn’t make an appearance. They only perform a handful of movements that we would commonly categorize as concert dance vocabulary.
Yet their exquisite dancing manages to speak louder, with much more to say than most concerts seen on the North Texas stages. Their performance compels the audience to engage, to respond to this visceral experience evoked by their seemingly supernatural presence, which at the same time is completely and utterly genuine.