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The Incredibles

If Simone Biles, Baryshnikov, Michelle Kwan, Mr. Wiggles, and Bruce Lee somehow had a baby, that child would be an ideal candidate for the Compagnie Hervé Koubi. The French-Algerian Koubi—who got a doctorate in pharmacology before doing a 180 into choreography (and in his case, it was probably a 540)—brought his jaw-dropping fusion of athletic styles to the Joyce this week in a new work titled “Sol Invictus” (invincible sun). This was another fascinating submission from the Van Cleef & Arpels Dance Reflections curators. Koubi’s 18 dancers pulled off stunts I would not have believed were humanly possible. A reverse worm! Slides across the floor on heads, knuckles, and kneecaps! There were multiple iterations of what appeared to be inverted ice skating scratch spins performed on heads and palms of hands. Dancers circled the stage in a variety of aerial tricks, including back handspring manèges in which only one hand or foot touched the ground in between rotations. If his dancers were not disproving gravity, they were low to the ground with their legs hovering above it as if they were on imaginary pommel horses.  

Performance

Compagnie Hervé Koubi: “Sol Invictus”

Place

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, January 23, 2024

Words

Faye Arthurs

Compagnie Hervé Koubi in “Sol Invictus.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

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Circling the stage was a major theme of “Sol Invictus.” The piece began with Allan Sobral Dos Santos slowly prowling for two laps, intensely regarding the audience and his castmates around the perimeter. He was clad in a red tunic and culottes by costume designer Guillaume Gabriel. He sped up for a third pass and dove into a splayed, overarched headstand—but on the back of his head, closer to his occipital bone than his crown—like a flipped bug. Time seemed to stand still for a minute as he froze in that precarious position. Then his colleagues busted out into all sorts of impressive breakdancing passes as droning music commenced. Duets and trios in brief unison sequences materialized and then dissolved back into a chaotic landscape of rotating limbs.  

These frenzied bursts were interspersed with lots of dazed walkabouts, statuesque posing, and a slew of group dances that called on capoeira and folk imagery. There were trepak kicks, funny pony chugs with floppy torsos and steering-wheel arms, heel-dig jigs with arms open wide and palms up like Rio’s Christ the Redeemer, and posy-tossing maypole skips. The cast often pranced with their arms overhead and crossed at the wrists or made crowns with the heels of their hands at their temples. They played at being both commoners and kings. Koubi’s contrast of funky street moves with this odd pageantry was fantastic. And some of this silly courtliness was set to Beethoven’s darkly plodding 7th Symphony, which was grand. 

Compagnie Hervé Koubi in “Sol Invictus.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

Koubi’s stagecraft was also strong. A gold sheet at the back of the stage became a Virgin Mary veil for Francesca Bazzucchi, who later impersonated the other half of the Pietà when she lay draped across her partner’s arms (religious imagery was everywhere). This sheet was also employed as a raft, as clumps of dancers were pulled across the stage arranged in stoic poses like Emanuel Leutze’s painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. Then the sheet was used to wrap up the Adonic, absurdly talented Badr Benr Guibi, who doffed his gray tunic and swathed his bottom half in the golden fabric. He stood heroically in lighting designer Lionel Buzonie’s amber glow as the cast gathered around him admiringly. It was as if we were all witnessing the rebirth of the sun god—Apollo 2.0. It was hard to top that glorious vignette, but the phenomenal Elder Freitas Fernandes Oliveira managed to when he placed his head in the very middle of the gilt circle and did a dozen upside-down spins to suck in the fabric like an eggbeater. It was as beautiful as it was astonishing. 

These two men were standouts in Koubi’s preternaturally gifted cast, which, for the first time, included a few women. I was also impressed by how Denis Chernykh, in ochre, seemed to float like an astronaut no matter what he was doing. And the most extraordinary performance was by Samuel Da Silveira Lima, who could do more things with his one leg than most people with two could even dream of. He crossed the stage by alternately hopping from his foot to his knee. It was mind-blowing. The control he had in rolling down along the lateral or medial side of his leg was tremendous. He effortlessly turned himself into a breakdancing noodle alongside his peers. 

Elder Freitas Fernandes Oliveira of Compagnie Hervé Koubi in “Sol Invictus.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

“Sol Invictus” had so much going on: myriad movement genres, a hodgepodge of musical excerpts (droning electronica, classical, and neoclassical), bold hairstyles, props, shirts coming off and going back on, smoke effects, and dramatic lighting changes. Until it didn’t. Frequently, the cast would mill about looking lost before repeating another cycle of the same wild stuff to a different clip of music. Perhaps they needed breaks for the blood to rush back into their heads, or maybe they were trying their best to embody Koubi’s puzzling aims, as stated in his “manifesto for life” in the program. “Dizzying with the place of the living in the immensity of the universe,” he writes. Also: “I call on stage, a whole world and its smiles, a liberated spelling in the service of a writing that goes beyond borders, aesthetics, languages, and styles. There will also be rounds and spirals. Those who raise each one of us thanks to the others, thanks to the Other. So; here we are…maybe.”  

Huh. Well, maybe. I appreciated that the dancers’ bold feats were not presented in an escalating, circus-y manner; there were no hokey drumrolls. In fact, Koubi could have used more suspenseful framing throughout. But his movement vocabulary, though extreme, was rich. This didn’t feel like gymnastics, this was decidedly dance. Koubi was clearly trying to say something more than just “ta-da.” But he needed to figure out more precisely what that was. Strangely, the work meandered and dragged despite all its remarkable raw materials. This was a shame, because there was so much about “Sol Invictus” that was truly excellent. I think a focused score and some edits would go a long way to making it soar as high as its cast.  

Samuel Da Silveira Lima (center) and Compagnie Hervé Koubi in “Sol Invictus.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

In his notes for the premiere in December, Koubi wrote, “SOL INVICTUS or how to make fun of death while dancing.” This feels more apt. The numerous peasant dancing motifs made the piece feel celebratory, yet also competitive. The dancers yelped and hooted and cheered each other on before trying to outdo one another. There was a “hold my beer” vibe at times, which made sense. I imagine some of these moves were invented through drunken dares. Though the delivery needed tweaking, Koubi’s underlying linking of community and invincibility was solid. Nothing showcases our common humanity better than superhuman, death-defying acts done joyfully in the round.      

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

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