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In Praise of Light

France-based Compagnie Hervé Koubi returned to the Joyce after four years to perform its latest evening-length work, “Sol Invictus.” The dynamic company of international artists brings non-stop energy in a super-charged ritual celebrating life and light (hence the title “Sol Invictus” meaning “invincible sun”). With their fusion of hip-hop and contemporary dance, these astounding performers galvanize themselves into a stream of mesmerizing sights filling every particle of the visible space.

Performance

Compagnie Hervé Koubi: “Sol Invictus”

Place

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

Words

Karen Greenspan

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

Company founder, artistic director, and choreographer Hervé Koubi was born and raised in France. The discovery of his Algerian heritage as an adult at his father’s deathbed set him on a definitive artistic journey. He embarked on a series of choreography projects from 2010 to 2019 with an all-male group of 12 to 14 street dancers from Algeria, Morocco, France, Israel, and Burkina Faso. Although Koubi comes from a ballet background, most of his dancers do not. They honed their movement skills in parks and on the streets. I had previously seen two of the all-male works. Since “Sol Invictus” is the first of Koubi’s works to tour New York that includes female dancers in its cast of 18 members, I was interested to see what effect this would have on the work.

The curtain opens to reveal Lionel Buzonie’s lighting that paints the black space with crisscrossing rays of golden light. As it intensifies, the reflective flooring becomes visible and multiplies the stunning visions performed on its mirror-like surface. Dancers walk casually onto the stage and sit or stand about the periphery as one shirtless dancer in a red culotte walks a big circle around the space. He continues circling, each time building speed and eventually skimming around sideways on all fours. Suddenly, he flips backwards and balances on his hands, his legs extended upward. Single dancers begin to cross the stage. Eventually, small rows of dancers interweave, crossing the stage from both directions with an ever growing torrent of leaps, spirals, and spins (on any body part). Shifting lunges and directional changes accompanied by arms sculpting the space in rhythmic overhead arcs and upward reaches charge the scene with frenzied celebration. The activity dies down to reveal a dancer nonchalantly flipping in the air and spinning on his head.

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

With ebb and flow, bodies hurtle through the air—horizontally, vertically, upside down, right side up—in physics defying feats for 75 minutes. The most expressive moments integrate a joyful folksy twostep bringing the dancers together in various groupings sharing smiles, yips, and hollers. Outbursts of sustained spinning on heads and hands with the occasional back flip are held together with threads of the folkdance weaving through their midst. The sense of human connection is again visible through a quiet, reverent circling of the group while holding hands.

A variety of moods are evoked by the score that encompasses excerpts of music by Swedish composer Mikael Karlsson, Steve Reich, Ludwig Van Beethoven, and digital composer Maxime Bodson. As the solemn yet uplifting strains of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony swelled to a climax, I was surprised that the stunt-filled dancing seemed oblivious to the sonic magnificence and shaping that it partnered with. There was not a trace of musical phrasing or parallel crescendo in the choreography. During the post-show curtain chat, Koubi offered that they do not coordinate their movement together by counting. Instead, they maintain “an elastic relationship—a kind of dialogue—with the music.” He continued, “We bounce on it, laugh with it, shout with it.” I would call it a missed opportunity.

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

As if all the aerial flips, free-flying leaps, and trampoline-like rebounds from the floor are not enough to captivate, a huge gold metallic fabric arranged in shimmering folds like a flowing river along the upstage border becomes the center of attention. The fabric is spread out, danced upon, gathered, and donned in all manner of ways. When a solo dancer performs a head pirouette below (and again above) its surface, the fabric’s edges are released, and the glittering prop engulfs the dancer in a centrifugal swirl. It packs a punch—but only once.

After several potential endings, a new round of physicality erupts to music with recognizable references to the affecting rhythms of the final section of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” The entire group is activated—skipping forward and backward, forming concentric circles, and renewed horizontal crossings of the space. Out of the feverish chaos, clusters of dancers coalesce into human catapults that raise and launch individuals into the air. And in the final moment, a flying body is caught in the waiting arms of the group.

Koubi shared that the first order of business during a new project is for the dancers to form a connection with each other. They must learn to communicate without words because most of the dancers do not speak each other’s languages. Koubi offered, “If we can learn to dance together, perhaps we can learn to live together.” As to the effect of women’s presence in the work, I would say that they bring a physical contrast and dramatic tension to the men’s club—plus, they make it dance

Karen Greenspan


Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist and frequent contributor to Natural History Magazine, Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, and Tricycle among other publications. She is also the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan, published in 2019.

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