March 5, 2020
Picture, if you will, a bare, muscled male torso. Visualize beneath it, an earth-toned skirt, intricately draped about the hips and legs; above it, a glistening mask covering the entire head, topped off with two blades sprouting upward from the temples. What does your brain choose to associate with this information, if anything?
Set that aside, and notice what comes up when you hear the word “barbarian.” Now place those associations in conversation with your visual correlate. If you’re like me, who immediately found Hervé Koubi’s fourteen nearly identical bodies to evoke a homoeroticization of Frank, the imaginary rabbit figure from Donnie Darko, your internal associative conversation was likely very confusing.
Les Nuits Barbares, ou Les Premiers Matins du Monde (The Barbarian Nights, or The First Dawns of the World), I suspect, is puzzling to most American viewers, but Koubi and his all-male company make up for it with the sort of relentless physical endurance that keeps lovers of spectacle entranced, no matter how conceptual, in a non-stop blend of breakdance, martial arts, and partnering that injects cheerleader stunts heavily with testosterone.
But what about the barbarians? Koubi, of French-Algerian descent, made the piece as an expression of his research into the myriad of often tribal Mediterranean communities who lived outside the “great civilizations” (Greek, Roman, Christian). His talkback with The Joyce’s Laura Diffenderfer outlined his concept of celebrating peoples whose histories have been negatively recorded by enemy civilizations in a meta performance of Koubi’s limited though intelligible English being vaguely interpreted to the point of audience members verbally completing what were assumed to be his thoughts.
The cast asymmetrically dresses the stage in satisfyingly organic groupings; however, this decentralization doesn’t mean a dancer won’t yank focus to dish out an extended head spin. What’s different is that the whole ensemble is adept at these techniques, allowing dancers to tumble through the negative spaces between other dancers’ upside-down pirouettes.
Every scene is borne from a move which travels through the ensemble in a tighter than usual exploitation of “flocking,” breaking up what would otherwise be pure unison into a more textured web of shared material. Lack of development increasingly dampens the displays’ efficacy over time, and we quickly become hip to Koubi’s primary trick of setting up dramatic reveals time and time again.
Despite its formal and conceptual shortcomings, there is deep value to Les Nuits Barbares’s display of non-sexual male tenderness. Compagnie Hervé Koubi is a community that believes in its work and supports its constituents. To see Koubi greet each dancer with a kiss and have them all say their name and homeland (spanning the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Eastern Europe), is a desperately necessary model of fraternity and masculinity.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews