The piece will have its U.S. premiere at Dance Place on Feb. 29 and March 1, followed by a performance at Reston Community Center on March 3. Titled simply “Boys Don’t Cry,” the dance for seven men combines spoken text and the company’s signature style of smooth athletic movement to confront the gender cliches thrust upon children, by society and by parents, even if unwittingly.
Cultural norms about what’s okay for girls but not for boys, and vice versa, die hard. One has only to think back on Lara Spencer’s disparaging comments last August on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” when she reported on Britain’s young Prince George, and his fondness for ballet. She apologized days later, after unleashing a backlash against the bullying of boys who dance.
“We have a long way to go” in treating boys and girls equally, says the 44-year-old Koubi, speaking in French. “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.”
Koubi is doing his part and doing it beautifully. I saw his company three years ago at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass., in an all-male piece called “What the Day Owes to the Night,” and the dancers’ liquid ease of movement and palpable camaraderie captivated me. The piece was full of explosive acrobatics executed with the freedom and nonchalance of dolphins in the surf. Human architecture assembled before our eyes, with men balanced atop one another, diving into waiting arms. This company crushes the stale stereotype about the unmanliness of dance.
Though he now includes a few female dancers, Koubi started his troupe 20 years ago with Algerian men — hip-hop dancers, experts in capoeira and other martial arts, gymnasts and self-taught movers — whom Koubi brought to Cannes. He calls them his “found brothers,” a family manquée to stand in for the one that was hidden from him — denied to him — for much of his life.
Koubi was 25 when his father broke the news that he and Koubi’s mother were not native French, but Algerian, a designation that, for more than a century, had equated in France to second-class status.
His parents had never spoken about their pasts. With time, Koubi has been able to look past the shock of the revelation and view it philosophically. His parents had moved to France from their North African homeland in the early 1960s, toward the end of the French-Algerian war.
“They thought they’d be welcomed as heroes, because though they were Algerian, they had defended French interests,” Koubi says. “But when they arrived in France, they were treated like savages.”
In response, “they erased themselves,” he says, to assimilate. Koubi’s father, who is Jewish, started a business making suits and military uniforms. His mother, a Muslim, changed her name and raised their three children — Hervé and two sisters — as Jews.
“They had this will to be more French than the French,” Koubi says. “Unconsciously but very clearly, we never spoke about family origins.”
By the time Koubi learned the truth, he was struggling with a lie of his own. He’d started studying ballet at 16, eventually training at Cannes’s prestigious Pôle National Supérieur de Danse Rosella Hightower. He dreamed of a dance career. But to please his parents, he pursued a doctorate in pharmaceutical biology.
Suddenly, he realized, “it was necessary for me to be an artist. And I’d never told them that. I never said, ‘I have to do this.’ ”
He is quiet for a moment.
“Maybe it’s for that reason that I created this piece, ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ Maybe it was to say the things that I should have told my parents.”
Christopher K. Morgan, artistic director of Dance Place, says that presenting Koubi’s group is a big lift financially but that it’s manageable with the slightly smaller cast of “Boys Don’t Cry.” (The full company numbers 12 dancers). Morgan has been a friend and admirer of Koubi for years and helped present the company in its U.S. debut in 2013 at the Alden Theatre in McLean. Morgan says the troupe’s message of “finding wholeness within yourself and with others” makes the dancers powerful role models for young artists, and this is especially true in “Boys Don’t Cry.”
“These dancers are sharing their own deep experiences about toxic masculinity, that view that dancing is not a masculine endeavor,” Morgan says, “and yet here they are in this position of power, touring the world with their art form.”
Indeed, all signs indicate that Cie Hervé Koubi is thriving. It’s the midst of a U.S. tour, and arrives in Washington after performing at New York’s Joyce Theater. The company is still based in Cannes but has a second home in Brive-la-Gaillarde, a town in southwest France; it receives financial support from both cities.
Having grown up in an atmosphere of silence, Koubi formed his company as a forum for raising questions. It’s an outlet, he says, “to share with the public the subjects that touch me.” Yet while exploring identity is a frequent creative theme, Koubi emphasizes that he does not present his experience, or that of his dancers, in anger, or to assert that society has done them wrong.
“That kind of a claim does not interest me,” he says. “I am trying to discover how to live with others. And this search has only brought me closer to the world. It is not a pretext to separate us. What interests me is this: dancing together.
“In other words, if we can dance together, we can live together.”
His company is a model of that belief. Koubi’s brotherhood of dancers is now drawn not only from Algeria, but also from Morocco, Italy and France. In what he says is unprecedented in the dance world, his company also includes an Israeli and a Palestinian.
“Lots of people tried to talk me out of that,” Koubi says. “But in the end, things are very simple. We dance.”