The troupe of seven men moves as a single body, their limbs interlacing, each motion rippling through the whole of them. They are dressed in white, standing together before a white curtain, dancing in that brightness to a slow, droning drum. Eventually, the drums beat faster… Eventually, the dancers break apart. This is the opening “tableau vivant” of “Boys Don’t Cry” — French-Algerian choreographer Hervé Koubi’s latest work.
Dance takes on many meanings in “Boys Don’t Cry.” At times, it is a binding force for the men; as the show progresses, it becomes militaristic, pitting one against the other. For Koubi, it is all an exploration of gender — the toxicity of masculinity that seems to transcend any one place or culture, set to music by Stéphane Fromentin and written by Chantal Thomas.
Koubi’s company (Compagnie Hervé KOUBI) just finished a tour through the U.S., performing “Boys Don’t Cry” in Washington, D.C. from February 29 through March 2 at Dance Place and then in Virginia at the Reston Community Center. Addressing the audience before the show, Koubi emphasized the diversity of the company’s heritage, which he launched nearly 20 years ago. He is French, of Algerian descent, and his dancers claim many nationalities — Algerian, Italian, Palestinian, and Moroccan, to name just a few.
Koubi draws inspiration from Algeria’s eclectic dance scene, where street dancers have blended hip hop, Brazilian martial arts, and traditional North African dance into something wholly Algerian.
These many influences are evident in “Boys Don’t Cry.” Koubi draws plenty of inspiration from Algeria’s eclectic dance scene, where networks of street dancers have blended hip hop, Brazilian martial arts, and traditional North African dance into something wholly Algerian. He adds to this everything from gymnastics to ballet. Throughout the show, the dancers move fluidly from headspins to careening acrobatics. Yet, there is logic to it all. Many forms are needed to explore the kinds of questions Koubi raises about gender.
“Let’s be honest: In most of the average families in France, and probably in the U.S.A. and in North Africa, there’s been an evolution, but there’s still such a long road to travel [for gender equality],” Koubi told the Washington Post in February. He wanted the show to pay tribute to the similarity and resilience of patriarchy across borders.
A sort of sorrow comes over “Boys Don’t Cry” once the dancers split from their initial group formation, even though it is marvelous to watch, the dance morphs into martial arts and war cries. Soon, one dancer approaches the microphone to perform the dialogue written by Chantal Thomas. “I hate soccer,” he says. “I love the night. And in the night, I have dreams,” he continues.
This character, this man — who hates soccer but loves dreams and dance, who is told over and over by his father, his teachers, his friends that “boys don’t cry” — is a familiar trope, whether in the United States or Algeria. This boy is at the center of “Boys Don’t Cry,” played by each of the dancers, who then also transform into those men that tease him.
There is far more nuance to the choreography than there is to the language. We have all heard the phrase “boys don’t cry” ad nauseam, but we have not seen anything like Koubi’s diorama of performed masculinity, where dance becomes violent, and then tender, and then a mask to be worn before the world. So, while at times the “boys don’t cry” cliché feels like a fitting lens through which to ground this work, it often also feels inadequate.
“Boys Don’t Cry” celebrates masculinity just as much as it condemns its ills; the show defends men who hate soccer and love dance by reminding us that these men, too, are strong and manly.
It similarly feels lacking to critique gender roles armed only with an all-male cast (typical of Koubi’s shows). Paradoxically, “Boys Don’t Cry” celebrates masculinity just as much as it condemns its ills; the show defends men who hate soccer and love dance by reminding us that these men, too, are strong and manly and can reach great athletic heights. There is still little room for anyone who falls outside of those bounds.
Perhaps, though, this is Koubi’s reminder to us that standards of gender pervade all spheres — even dance. And there are many moments in “Boys Don’t Cry” when his dancers defy those standards and blur the lines, like its beginning. These are the show’s strongest moments.
The fraternity of Koubi’s troupe is also rooted in the Algerian immigrant experience. He calls these dancers his “found brothers” — referring specifically to the first members of his company, Algerian street dancers that he invited to work with him in Cannes. Forming these near-familial bonds was a way for the choreographer to connect with his heritage, which he said he had felt distant from growing up in France. He did not return to Algeria until he was an adult, and even then, without his family. He never learned Arabic. Koubi has built his sense of Algeria, of North Africa, through dance.
“Boys Don’t Cry” does not reach a clear conclusion on what masculinity means for dance, but perhaps it does not need to. Dance is “a hand extended,” one dancer says to the audience solemnly as the show reaches its end. It sounds like Koubi, himself, speaking.
Koubi is certain that dance is an avenue for human connection. And for men, so often barred from this kind of expression, he sees dance as transcendent. We see this in “Boys Don’t Cry,” and it is a beautiful thing to watch.