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Theater & Dance

Flirting with the Brutal, Compagnie Hervé Koubi Dazzles

The French-Algerian troupe blends classicism and street performance.
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Piercing obscurity, the stage lights rise on jeweled helmets created by Swarovski. Throwing pinpoints of light, they glow; they glimmer. Under them, 13 male dancers move their bodies as though one. The movements seem improvised, though they cannot be. Because you have realized, with a chill, that the horns on their helmets are blades. Danger is not far. You shiver.

So begins Compagnie Hervé Koubi’s newest piece, entitled “Les Nuits Barbares” (Barbarous Nights), performed on Saturday at the Winspear Opera House as part of the TITAS season. Seeking to explore his roots, director and choreographer Koubi began working with Algerian street dancers 10 years ago. His work over the past decade with an all-male company has been hailed as jaw-dropping. “Les Nuits Barbares” was no exception.

The piece flirts powerfully with themes of barbarism and what we designate as culture, taking 3,000 years of Mediterranean civilization in its scope. Lyrical production notes speak of a common geography. In the final moments, dancers from Algeria, Morocco, France, and Burkina Faso stand in jeans, bodies still, facing the audience. They speak to Koubi’s theme after an intermission-less hour of extraordinary athleticism that may be one of the most powerful evocations I’ve seen of such urgency.

First, the swirling mass, that moves as though emerging from a primordial miasma. Still faceless, anonymous, the dancers undulate with the company’s highly-developed control of amoeba-like motion. Then individual movement follows, the line of dancers contorting like Michelangelo’s bound slaves. As the light plays over the masks, you feel you have never seen so many beautiful, disquieting bodies.

In some of the most stunning moments, the company’s strong street performance roots come out in seemingly improvised interludes Koubi describes as lace. They twirl like whirling dervishes, balanced upside-down like tops. References to capoeira and other martial arts come to mind. But this is an art form all his own. These movements have particular resonance in the context of the piece’s themes and purpose: to show the brilliance of the Other. To place you always between terror, threat, and dazzling beauty. At one point, the dancers stand in a line, threatening. Are they avengers — or protectors? Lines blur. At another, they enter the stage with poles. Leaning on them, they look like cripples. Later, they will use them to vault.

Koubi composed the sound-landscapes, which include Mozart, Faure, and Wagner with Algerian folk songs, linked beautifully by an unsettling electronic base. The stage is lit so as to play dramatically with chiaroscuro.

For the first three-fourths of the piece, it was clear from the audience’s pregnant silence that I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t take a breath. Towards the end, ideas began to feel repeated, the theatricality of certain sacred imagery, the overtones of Christlike crucifixion, overwrought. But the piece’s physical expressiveness was explosive, electrifying, moving. Before the curtain dropped, the audience was on its feet.

Should they return — and there is great reason to hope TITAS makes sure they do — they are a group not to miss.

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