Review: A Work That Conjures Desert Sands and Whirlwinds

Posted January 31, 2018 5:57 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Bare-chested and dressed in loose white culottes, the 13 men of Compagnie Hervé Koubi move throughout “What the Day Owes to the Night” in ways that suggest the slowly shifting contours of sand dunes or the sudden spins of desert whirlwinds. The juxtaposition of contrasting speeds and shapes is mesmerizing. And the virtuosity of those rotations — the men turn, upside down, on either both hands or one, so unexpectedly and so fast that you can’t quite see what they’re doing or how — is a touch of theatrical magic. The costumes, by Guillaume Gabriel, easily flare into the air; the lighting, by Lionel Buzonie, suggests the shimmering heat of a mirage.

On Tuesday, the production’s opening night at the Joyce Theater, Koubi prefaced the performance with a charming speech from the front of the auditorium. He explained that he is French-born but (as the name Koubi may suggest) of Algerian descent. When he asked about his ancestry, his father, a man of few words, merely showed him an old photograph of a man in Arab attire.

This led the audience to expect a work of ethnic nostalgia, a search for a lost culture. Instead, with no sense of longing or loss to frame it, “What the Day Owes,” a 2013 work that has been performed at Jacob’s Pillow and elsewhere in the United States, is simply a coherent world, a reimagining of an all-male North African society that offers athleticism but no labor.

Others may see less desert imagery than I do and more urban and extra-African suggestions. These performers, all with powerful upper-body musculature, are street dancers; the upside-down spins like those you find in break dancing. Some of the hurtling upside-down jumps are those usually associated with capoeira, the Brazilian martial arts genre. And, toward the end, some of the men start to spin — upright this time — on the spot in the off-kilter upper-body stance of dervishes.

I doubt whether this diversity of cultural reference is strictly apposite to Koubi’s Algerian quest. But “What the Day Owes” immediately presents itself as a work of fantasy and is best relished as such. Impersonally, the men support one another; there are some spectacular lifts, throws and catches. It’s a hybrid, not so much timeless as time-traveling, with a score ranging from Sufi music to Bach.

Having fallen in love with “What the Day Owes” in the first two minutes, I found that it didn’t deepen my love after the first 15. There are a couple of moments when you can see what’s coming. (Men held high by others are going to fall and be caught.) And there are several later effects — those dervish spins — that look like afterthoughts, not organic parts of the whole. Although the piece goes through changes of tempo, it loses momentum here and there in its 65-minute duration.

Nonetheless, this is a creation of poetic beauty. Koubi’s past works include a “Coppélia” and “The Supremes,” so he himself is diverse. I hope we’ll see more of his choreography. If he can make worlds as largely absorbing as the one he conjures here, he is an important addition to dance.


Additional Information:

Compagnie Hervé Koubi

Through Feb. 4 at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan; joyce.org, 212-242-0800.