writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

A New Wind from Britain

Ballet Boyz
George Piper Dances
Lisner Auditorium
(presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society)
October 21, 2003

By Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright © 2003 by Alexandra Tomalonis

The Ballet Boyz are one of the best things to happen to ballet in years. They're young and trendy and on record as saying they want to bring dance to people not used to watching it (a noble endeavor), but former Royal Ballet dancers Michael Nunn and William Trevitt make serious work accessible and fun to watch without dumbing it down.  The company's members and repertory shift as circumstances dictate. For the current U.S. tour, there are five dancers: Hubert Essakow, Oxana Panchenko and Monica Zamora, in addition to Nunn and Trevitt. What they present is as far from the typical "we're not doing anything much this month so let's put on a show" off-season gig as can be imagined: three serious works in styles that range from contemporary ballet to modern dance, interspersed with home movie-style videos that give the audience a glimpse of life on tour, a mini-introduction to each of the works and their choreographers, and time for both dancers and audience members to catch their breath.

Whether by accident or design, each of the three works shown here—William Forsythe's Steptext, Christopher Wheeldon's Mesmerics, and Russell Maliphant's Torsion—began with a dancer, or dancers, standing still, the only movement in the arms. Then, like an advanced post-modern dance composition class set the problem "begin with legs stationary and arms in motion, then create a dance," each work takes a different path.

Steptext, created in 1984, was the oldest work on the program. Set to Bach's Chaconne No. 4 in D minor for solo violin (or bits of it), the work is based on ballet vocabulary, though it's deconstructed—stretched, fractured, pushed to extremes, the steps tossed out as though they're so many phomenes. At times, the dancers seem to be communicating in semaphore. Steptext is about dancing and the process of dancing—the conceit is that we're watching a rehearsal, with dancers mixing informal walks and stretches in between more formal choreography. The movement is very athletic and dancers are said to love Forsythe's works because of it. There's a subtext to the stop and start movement, though, and that's the relationship among the three men and one woman, not in a social sense, but in something far less concrete and potentially far more interesting. However, the woman (Zamora), dressed in a hot pink leotard, like the ballerinas in Balanchine's Symphony in 3 Movements, was, if not one of the boys, one of four equal dancers, not the ballet's center, and this was perhaps why the ballet had less tension and mystery than it might otherwise. But the dancing here and throughout the evening was excellent.

Mesmerics starts out sternly but dissolves into beauty about halfway through, as though Wheeldon simply couldn't resist the music (several string quartets and other pieces by Philip Glass, which swirl like a siren's song, gently insistent, and, at the end, seem nearly as lush as Brahms). The dancers (the full company, two women and three men) are all dressed in black cut-off unitards with red trim, making them look like bicyclists. When Wheeldon surrenders to the music, the women swoon into their partners arms as though they're wearing tulle.  Black tulle, perhaps, but tulle. The ballet is beautifully constructed and fluid, and Wheeldon avoids the repetitive traps set by the music, which seems to pull the dancers back and forth, like waves ruled by the tide.

For me, the most interesting work on the program was the last, Maliphant's Torsion, which, the program note explains, "is a spectacular example of strength and balance work, with an intuitive understanding of coordination." That's quite true, but it undersells the dance's interest.  Torsion opens with Nunn and Trevitt, each in his own prison of light (designed by Michael Hulls), each aware of the other, but separate, and perhaps separated. In the second section, the lighting made the men's sleeveless shirts and long trousers look like military uniforms, the score (by Richard English) sounds, at times, like movie music for a battle, and the two men seemed to me to be soldiers, comrades, in combat. They support each other, quite literally, exploring weight shifts and balances that go beyond its contact improvisation roots and into imagery. Nunn balances the larger Trevitt on his thigh and points him at an unseen enemy, like a huge gun. Like Robert W. Service's Private McPhee and Private McPhun in pursuit of their haggis (a poem I adored when I was ten and haven't thought of since), one man seems sightless and carries the other, who's too wounded to walk. There's a sense of trust and danger and enormous tension. In the final segment, the lighting changes again and their clothes seemed blue—prisoners? Comrades in another dangerous place? I don't know. By that time, I was conscious of how difficult the constant, slow motion movement was, and how much strength and stamina it took to perform a program like this.

One disappointment was that, though the program took place on the George Washington University campus, it was a Tuesday night and the auditorium was not as full as it might have been on a weekend. There were some students, or student-aged audience members, but most seemed to be faithful, older, WPAS subscribers. No matter.  They loved the program and the dancers. You could sense a warmth in the house that went beyond the applause, and there was an immediate standing ovation at the end. They loved the films, too, which cleverly began with Nunn standing in front of the White House, asking, "Who is George Piper?" (Those are Nunn's and Trevitt's middle names.)  "The White House had no comment." There were travelogues that seem modeled on "Globe Trekker," as the group goes from theater to theater, but no clip was long enough to be boring, and the films not only showed a glimpse of what life is like for a dancer on the road, with good humor, but the brief interviews with the choreographers and shots of rehearsals introduced each dance and gave an idea of what we were about to see in a much more immediate way than program notes can.

The Ballet Boyz raise the bar in many ways.  They show what it's possible to do with a few people when the directors are determined to work with choreographers they respect to the point of traveling to their studios to work with them. There's nothing stripped down or make do about the dancing or its presentation. Perhaps most important of all, they're proving that you can be popular without being pop.

Oiginally published:
Volume 1, Number 5
October 27, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Alexandra Tomalonis




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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on October 27, 2003