December 23, 2010
Closing night in Algiers. Screwed up travel (documented all-too-well already here) leads to being at the closing night after all. The National Theater, a surprisingly charming place set deep in Colonial Algiers, built by the French, occupied by a powerful sense of national pride, embedded with the security protocols that are standard here, is the scene.
Throughout the four days of the Festival we’ve seen or been a part of there’s been a sense of earnest amateurism, of a complement of artists not entirely well chosen for their sense of what it means to be fully professional. As a two-year-old festival in its first year as one bringing artists from beyond North Africa that’s easy to excuse. It hasn’t felt particularly well-curated, a perception reinforced by the presentation of the first group on the closing night ceremony, which appears to be out of the National Ballet. The work is clichéd and an inelegant attempt to fuse ballet and Hip Hop, accomplishing neither and leaving the cast looking less than it probably really is. Your expectations diminish further.
All that has the effect of leaving you completely unprepared for the sheer power, grace, complexity and completeness of El Din, the work by French choreographer Hervé Koubi. El Din blows you right out of your seat. An all-male cast comprised of men who look like they never leave the gym for more than a few hours at a time takes its place in black. The white floor, and their white pants and fabric like an open skirt draping those pants, reveal them in the dimmest light. Something is afoot here – can it possibly redeem the perception that this is a well-intentioned yet amateurish program?
The lights begin to glow, staged entirely in the backlit, upstage down-light that we all love to use to silhouette and make mysterious the moment. Music rises and bodies begin to bend, to meld, to stretch and to undulate. The men are bare-chested, their skin reflecting the back-light and the bounce from the floor. They face away, leaving well-toned skin and musculature as the welcome to the audience.
Your mind snaps back into place after drifting for an hour and a half. Minutes go by and the physical power of slow, liquid movements begins to lull you. And then, from nowhere, a body explodes outward, spinning on his head a dancer goes round and round at breathtaking speed. Another leaps seemingly a dozen feet into the air, back arched and at once upside down. There is a fusion, a rare, stunningly effective fushion of the great moves of Hip Hop with the emotional embrace of modern.
This is a choreographer who knows what he’s doing and a cast of dancers who have the ability to give it to him. Their feet don’t point and you don’t care. Their lines aren’t clean and you don’t care. That’s a fixable. But the athleticism, the training in gymnastics and in the most daring of Hip Hop techniques keeps bursting out of the pack. At one moment someone is spinning 2 dozen times on his head as another leaps across the space in summersault after summersault and another executes a lift you swear you have, somehow, never seen before. Where has this guy come from?
From Company Thor in part. From a sense of invention and daring that captures a hint of Rubber Band Dance but is not about it. The North African mysticism underpinning it gives it a power and freshness and a sheer force, an elementalism, that is deeply internal. Every now and again something feels false, but then it resolves right back into the oozing/exploding force that gives it its foundation.
It’s incredibly difficult to show off the kind of moves these dancers possesses without devolving the choreography into tricks encased in a shell of “integrity.” Koubi and his dancers pull it off.
The music changes and Koubi takes the risk of using the Kronos Quartet’s “Waterwheel” from “Pieces of Africa.” Its tricky because its music which has been used to often in contemporary choreography. It risks that same cliché he has thus far eschewed. But again he pulls it off.
The dancers are focused to the point where you have a sense that the audience does not exist for them; that they are in a mysterious box sheltered from the world inhabiting it in ways both elemental and sensual. I know I have never seen Algerian dancers who can do what Mr. Koubi sees in his head. These guys can.
A few nights earlier we’d been sitting on the bus together – I had no idea of him or his work, but what he described was intriguing – of coming to Algeria in search of his roots and creating a collaboration between himself and these artists. I keep thinking “ I didn’t know they had dancers like this in Algeria.”
Koubi is on to something, and it needs to keep growing and expanding. They could be for Algeria what the great companies are for other countries.
Suddenly the reasons there’s a festival in Algeria comes into focus. The future of the scene, beyond imitation and surpassing the limits of the new field here, one obsessed with Hip Hop it seems, starts to emerge. This choreographer has an identity with these artists. Its not perfect, but you don’t care. With time and nutrients it can own the Opera Houses of the world and wake people up to Algeria.
Seeing it made all the challenges and aggravations of Algeria melt away in a moment, and leave you with that glow which great art imparts – that golden hour of light that we photographers grab up in the hour before sunset, when the world is transformed.
There’s video of Koubi’s project by a film-maker, Gaster, on Vimeo. Nice as it is it doesn’t compare to the power of the live stage, but its worth a look for a glimpse of what they’re about. Its called Body Concrete.
Koubi's website is multi-lingual and the English link is here.