Boys Don’t Cry

by John Stoltenberg

Boys Don’t Cry made this boy cry.

It happened near the end. I had been watching a performance by the French dance company Cie Hervé Koubi. Seven shirtless male dancers, all from different countries, were doing the most amazing gymnastically inspired choreography. And I had been awestruck as much by the muscularity of their movements as by their utter absence of macho aggression.

Scene from ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ Photo by Frédérique Calloch.

They were powerful yet graceful. Confreres not competitors. Breathing and sweating and trusting together—flipping and leaping, lifting and carrying, sliding and break-dancing, entwining and head-spinning—in what seemed virtuosic escape as much from gravity as from the toxicity that is masculinity. (See trailer below).

Then one by one, while the others still danced, they stood at a mic and spoke about growing up as a boy expected to be good at combative sports.

Scene from ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ Photo by Nathalie Sternalski.

One told of being shamed into soccer (“I hate soccer”). Another of being intimidated by a gym teacher and cut from a team. Another of a dream in which his mother, wearing shorts and heels, played in his place on the soccer team and rescued him. Another of being pushed into martial arts—his father signed him up and he lasted one hour (“I hate judo”). Another of being bullied and beaten for being skinny and unathletic and wanting his father to see his wounds and understand his hurt and comfort him—only to be told what a big disappointment he was.

A disappointment to dad. A dad who did not want his son to dance. A story shared, we can surmise, by all the sons we see on stage.

Some emotional nerve had been hit. Something that removed this reviewer from objectivity.

It was after a narrator told that the father who had passed judgment on him had passed— It was after that narrator dedicated the next dance “To you, Dad”— It was while the entire troupe was suddenly dancing in liberation and jubilation and exultation—

That was when I lost it. That was when art and life crashed into each other and left tears at the scene.

Choreographer Hervé Koubi with dancers from ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ Photo by Frédérique Calloch.

Cie Hervé Koubi, founded by Algerian native Hervé Koubi, was on a multi-week U.S. tour, giving two performances February 29 and March 1, 2020, at Dance Place and a third March 3 at CenterStage in Reston Virginia.

In a preshow talk, Koubi and choreographic assistant Fayçal Hamlat described Boys Don’t Cry as “an autobiographical project.” They explained that the cast would be speaking the text (by Koubi and noted French author Chantal Thomas) for the first time in English. They also mentioned the intentional diversity in the company. Hamlat is Muslim and Koubi is Jewish (about which they remarked in unison, “It doesn’t matter”). One dancer is from Israel, another from Palestine, others from other countries in the vicinity of the Mediterranean.

When the curtain rose the set was so white and lit so bright (by Lionel Buzonie), my eyes needed a moment to adjust. The seven dancers (costumed by Guillaume Gabriel) were also all in white. The choreography was an enthralling combination of complex coordination and spirited, supple ease. A tight huddle formed, for instance, then seemed to blossom like a flower as arms reached out in quest or supplication.

In a scene set to the sound of a soccer game, there were no opposing teams; there was only the vigor of a synchronized ensemble. Other sounds and music called forth other maneuvers and moods—electronica, Diana Ross singing “Love Hangover” (I wanna get over…), a song in Arabic by Moroccan singer-songwriter Oum, a churchlike choir (original compositions were by Stéphane Fromentin).

Now and then, while one was at the mic, others would rest upstage and towel off. There was something even in their exhaustion that affirmed embodied resilience. Boys Don’t Cry serves as a rallying cry of resistance to the soul-crushing notion that boys should be unfeeling. And it could literally save lives.

Scene from ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ Photo by Nathalie Sternalski.

Choreography: Hervé Koubi & Fayçal Hamlat
Text: Chantal Thomas & Hervé Koubi
Choreographic artists: Mohammed Elhilali, Zakaria Nail Ghezal, Bendehiba Maamar, Nadjib Meherhera, Mourad Messaoud, Houssni Mijem, Et Houssaini Zahid
Music: Diana Ross, Oum, Russian traditional songs
Original score: Stéphane Fromentin
Costumes: Guillaume Gabriel
Light design: Lionel Buzonie

Production: Hervé Koubi Dance Company

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

Boys Don’t Cry played February 29 and March 1, 2020, presented by Hervé Koubi Dance Company (Cie Hervé Koubi) performing at Dance Place – 3225 8th Street, NE, Washington, DC.

Click here for information about the March 3, 2020, performance at CenterStage in Reston Virginia.

For tickets to other Dance Place events, call (202) 269-1600, or purchase them online.