The first treat of the opening night performance of “What the Day Owes the Night” was a curtain speech by the company’s founder and namesake, Hervé Koubi. Immediately, he put the eager crowd at ease with a disarming introduction: “I hope you will enjoy the show,” he said, taking a moment to review the full house. And then, with a smirk, “I hope.”
Enjoy it we would, but before the dancing began, Koubi, who grew up identifying only as French, shared the experience of discovering his Algerian heritage and how that led him to create this work. After detailing the nationalities that make us his company of 12 male dancers — Algerian, Moroccan, Burkinabé, Israeli, Palestinian and French — Koubi left the audience with a call for unity, noting that there always have been diverse communities able to exist together in harmony.
When the curtain opened the stage was dark. Faint chimes of cymbals began to fill the space and a hazy, warm glow from above slowly started to illuminate a mass of bodies. Their limbs moved with such fluidity it was hard to distinguish any one dancer, but gradually we came to see them reaching out from the group in cannon, only to recoil and begin again.
Suddenly, individuals started to spring out: one dancer moved into an effortless inversion, another flipped, a third pulled away from the group and began spinning — in the most gravity-defying way — on his hands, legs moving gracefully above him. This was the first time the audience took a collective breath in awe.
As the men spread out to fill the stage, they almost casually interwove incredible acrobatic feats with pedestrian movements. Handsprings, layouts, more daring turns on their hands and heads were done so suddenly, so smoothly, it was as if they were nothing spectacular (but of course, they were).
Throughout these moments of extreme energy, however, were many more of quietness. For every man dancing there were often two or three more wandering, observing the action or gazing off into space. Occasionally they would reach up to the light, which transitioned from moonglow to bright dawn and soft dusk intermittently throughout.
In each cycle, the movement worked through small groups until eventually bringing the full company together, only to have them fall apart in resigned stillness. Watching it felt almost like experiencing insomnia — an endless exhaustion that is never satisfied by rest.
While the capoeira-infused choreography was jaw-droppingly executed, the movement patterns were truly fascinating. The transitions from unison to smaller groups, and shifts between those specific groups, were masterfully executed. I can only imagine how breathtaking the view was from the balcony.
While there were many moments of power, we were treated to equal moments of tenderness. After a particularly turbulent section where the dancers collided into one another, there was a time of stillness, with nearly the full cast lying on the floor. Slowly they began to gravitate into pairs, offering support and comfort as they guided each other to new spaces on the stage, wiping sweat from their faces and chests with the loose fabric of their pants.
After a last, pounding unison section filled with percussive stomps, claps and chants, the dancers dispersed one last time to fill the stage. One man stood far downstage and spoke out to the auditorium, his face unlit. The lights slowly faded, and for a moment the audience was completely still and silent.
When the audience realized the piece had come to a close, patrons sprung to their feet. Astonishingly, not one person left the auditorium during the applause. Never have I witnessed an audience so committed to giving dancers their deserved moment of praise.
Reviewer Lily Watkins is a Charleston-based dancer, dance instructor and writer.