What would you do if you learned your parents had misrepresented your roots so fundamentally it shaped your entire worldview?
That was the case for Algerian French dancer and choreographer Hervé Koubi, who believed he was French through and through until he was 25. That’s when his father confessed that both sides of Koubi’s family were Arabic-speaking Algerians.
Koubi’s exploration of his roots in North Africa inspired his new, full-length dance piece What the Day Owes to the Night, which will be performed by his Cannes dance company Thursday through Sunday at the Prince Theater in Center City.
It’s the first salvo in NextMove Dance‘s new season, said artistic director Randy Swartz.
An all-male group, La Compagnie Hervé Koubi features dancers from France and North Africa — primarily Algeria — giving it a prominently Muslim face. But the company has no religious affiliations, nor does it claim to represent Islamic arts.
“Over the years, I’ve programmed nearly 100 dance companies and performers, but I have never seen anything quite like this,” Swartz said Monday. Koubi, who studied classical ballet, fuses elements of ballet, modern dance, hip-hop, and North African music and movement styles to create an intense style of dance that is “also very constrained and quiet,” said Swartz. “They have a kind of energy and physical prowess that I had not seen before, but they are also very restrained, and they move as a team.”
What the Day Owes to the Night, which the company has performed across America for more than a year, features 12 men dressed in loose, white trousers that recall the serwal, menswear widely worn in the Islamic world. “At one point, you see all 12 guys on their heads and they’re spinning around in rhythm with their flowing white clothes, and it looks like a flower opening up,” Swartz said.
“Most hip-hop-influenced dance is confrontational. It’s about one-upmanship, but [Koubi’s] is very collaborative, very unifying … which makes you marvel while at the same time it evokes this sense of , ‘I can’t believe their doggone gymnastic skills.’ ”
What the Day Owes to the Night evokes quietude. It’s a delicate, almost contemplative work, said Swartz. “And it’s very inviting, it invites you in. I saw one performance that began with the 12 men serving the audience tea. They came out and offered us tea!”
Koubi, 41, said the 70-minute piece is deeply personal. Not confident in his grasp of English, he spoke through Guillaume Gabriel, who helped him found the dance company in 1997.
“It really is the story of Hervé, of the history of his family as he came to discover it,” Gabriel said.
The piece was inspired by Koubi’s actual journey to Algeria, where he also encountered a mix of different dance and music styles.
“He doesn’t look Algerian at all. He’s very light-skinned and he has freckles, so it was easy for his parents to let him believe his great-grandparents had moved to Algeria as French colonists.”
Historically, relations between Algeria and France are far from harmonious. A former French colony, Algeria fought a bloody, eight-year war of independence before gaining nationhood in 1962. Koubi said his parents, who moved to France toward the end of the war, felt obliged to assimilate.
“They wanted to raise Hervé to be Frencher than French,” said Gabriel.
What the Day Owes to the Night, Koubi said, explores “how the cultures and histories of France and Algeria relate to one another.”
Gabriel chimed in, “It’s a bridge between two sides of the Mediterranean Sea.”
Compagnie Hervé Koubi
Performances 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 & 8 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday at Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut St.
Information: 215-422-4580 or princetheater.org/next-move.