The dancers of Compagnie Hervé Koubi spend a lot of time upside down. Inverted, they spin on one or both hands or on their heads, legs spiraling. Upright, they bound into the air, as if off trampolines, ball up their bodies and rapidly rotate in high-flying arcs. They toss one another even higher.
This is all thrilling. But the distinctive aesthetic achievement of this French company is to make those extraordinary acrobatics and hip-hop power moves feel at times pedestrian, almost like walking. What for other dancers might be show-off steps are integrated into a poetic vision, a different way of being. The dancers also tumble slowly, as in capoeira, showing fluid control rather than momentum and daring. Some of the head spins happen in the background, off to the side, like nothing special.
This integration of the amazing is both is a source of beauty and aesthetic problems in Koubi’s “Sol Invictus,” which had its New York debut at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday, sponsored by Van Cleef & Arpels’ Dance Reflections. When bodily pyrotechnics are part of the basic vocabulary, how does a choreographer escalate?
Like all the works the company has performed in New York, this is very much an ensemble piece. For 75 minutes, its 18 dancers never leave the stage. Mostly, they drift across it, skimming the floor in overlapping, ever-changing groupings, periodically clumping on one side of the stage or the other like sands blown into dunes.
Unlike in those previous works, the ensemble here includes women. Except for a few moves (they don’t do head spins), they aren’t differentiated from the men, who still wear the company’s signature culottes but aren’t all bare-chested as before. And where the company members were once largely North African in origin, the group now has a more global sampling of backgrounds.
The inclusion of women mainly diminishes the sense of a male rite. The choreographic shape remains similar: drifting, churning. Almost all solo moments are resets, so that more bodies can be added again, but there is very little unison, apart from a few flashes of folk-dance communion. Moves return but not phrases. The work starts with running in circles, and it keeps running in circles at different speeds. Again and again, something seems to be building — accelerating, gaining intensity, with dancers vocally encouraging one another — but it never quite reaches the boiling point. It disperses, dissolves.
The music contributes to this effect. Into a spare score by Mikael Karlsson come occasional intrusions of electronics by Maxime Bodson, bits of Beethoven (the funeral procession from the Seventh Symphony), some Steve Reich, but these fade in and out like radio signals. The backing away is clearly part of the design, even of the work’s view of life’s ups and downs, but may also be a consequence of the integration. How to top what is routinely astonishing?
With fabric. After a blackout that seems like an ending — and some odd interludes in which dancers advance like silhouetted zombies and pose in tableaux vivants like figures from historical paintings — the dancers pull out a sheet that the lighting (by Lionel Buzonie) gives a golden glow.
They pull the sheet over the dancer Samuel Da Silveira Lima, just after he has done a standing back flip, an especially impressive feat since he has only one leg. But he escapes out from under that billowing sea of troubles. They drag another dancer while he is on top of the sheet, spooling out a long and intricate head spin. When the other dancers let go of the fabric, his spinning winds it around him, gathering it into his whirlpool motion, a coup de théâtre.
This, too, is thrilling, heroic. But the accompanying theatrics aren’t as convincing. “Sol Invictus” is Latin for “the undefeated sun.” At one point, the dancers place their fingers around their heads like crowns. Near the end, one poses like a sun god. All through, the lighting tries to suggest the divine. The effect is pretentious, gilding the lily. “We must supply our own light,” Koubi writes in a rambling program note. His dancers do that by dancing.
Compagnie Hervé Koubi
Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater; joyce.org.