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Them/Us

by on 7 April 2019

Power, Punch, Passion

Them/Us

by William Trevitt, Michael Nunn, Christopher Wheeldon, et al, music by Charlotte Harding, Keaton Henson

The BalletBoyz, at Richmond Theatre, until 7th April, then on tour until 28th April

Review by Mark Aspen

Once upon a time, male ballet dancers were adjuncts to the ballerina, there to provide the strong lifts, to support the ballerina, and to be fulcrum for the delicate love story. Then, towards the end of the twentieth century, out popped Matthew Bourne and Les Ballets Trockadero. These though could be seen as re-workings of the ballerina roles for men, with artistic, or even (Trocks) comic, effect. Suddenly, it’s the 21st century and two Royal Ballet principals, Michael Nunn and Billy Trevitt, quit the Royal Ballet to start a dance revolution with their company that eventually metamorphosed into BalletBoyz.

That BalletBoyz has not only brought a muscular masculinity to dance but also an innovative symbiosis with dance makers: composers, designers, choreographers and the dancers themselves, is self-evident in its current work, Them/Us, now on nationwide tour.

The Them/Us double bill comprises two new pieces with new original scores by composers who have previously collaborated with BalletBoyz. The two pieces are linked in that Them is described as a prequel to Us, the latter a work that has expanded around the acclaimed eight-minute duet from Fourteen Days, premiered by BalletBoyz in 2017. Thematically, the two half-hour long pieces speak of the relationships, the tensions and bonds, the attractions and alienations that exist between society and the individuals within it.

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Them could be said to be the consummation the company’s two decades of collaborative working, in that this is a collaborative work, gestated from improvisations with the dancers in choreographic workshops, held alongside the composer Charlotte Harding. Nunn and Trevitt co-credit the choreography to the BalletBoyz dancers and Charlotte Pook, their rehearsal director. With these fledgling choreographers safely tucked under the wings of the maestros, the rapidly developing skills of Harding’ emerging style are added in. What sounds like it could be a horse designed by a committee, turns out to be a wonderfully coordinated empathy of movement, with dancers and music integrated in easeful fluidity. The company takes another calculated risk in that (as for both pieces) the music is all pre-recorded, leaving no leeway. Both scores are for strings and percussion, and conductor Mark Knoop creates a richly vibrant soundscape.

Charlotte Harding’s music owes a little to her mentor Mark-Anthony Turnage in a striking score of varied runs and turns, urgently coloured string motives that enable music and dancers to work together in symbiosis, such that it is difficult to elaborate on the dance without reference to the music.

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The striking opening sees the chorus of six dancers with an open cube half as high again than the dancers. The music is staccato strings, highlighted with a pizzicato cello. The dancers wear fluorescent shell suits. The cube is becomes almost another dancer, as it is manoeuvred in delicate equilibrium around the stage. It mirrors their moves, then becomes a cage which traps them. The dancers move with dynamic grace.

The dance style is an effortless amalgam of ballet, contemporary dance and gymnastic movement, fluent in its execution. The group has a slightly sinister feel and the music is edgy. It then enters wide expressive phrasing and we see the group as a microcosm of male society, greetings, rejections, hints at back-slapping hugs, shrugs. It becomes a wary mass.

The frame lifts, scooping the limp body of one of the dancers, and we see it as a scaffold, in both senses of the word. Gymnastic movements on the cage dissolve into street dance. The cello comments wistfully at suspended humanity while one solitary figure sits at a topmost corner high above, observing.

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Although this is an ensemble piece, there are remarkable duet and solo moments. A lone figure, danced by Dominic Rocca, is lost in a faceless city. His solo is inspired by street dance, with undercurrents of hip-hop and nods towards krump. It makes riveting watching. At this point, it becomes clear that the Richmond Theatre stage has been opened to its full depth, right back to the far upstage wall. There are slight imperfections in the matt black surface and the lighting picks these out, such that the background becomes a night-time cityscape see from high. This is Rocca’s lonely world.

We are extracted from this world into a lyrical flowing passage of music as the full ensemble gradually returns and there are reconciliatory mutual greetings and the eventual re-bonding of the group. Then the men seem conscious of an external threat. The music becomes agitated and the dancing even more energetic. It is an exhibition of the virtuosity of the BalletBoyz technique, building to a finale that is an exciting visual spectacle, culminating in a frenzied concatenation of spiccato strings and percussion.

The piece is resolved in a coda, the music regretful, almost mournful, dancers heads bowed down.

The atmosphere is both Them and in Us is enhanced by the strong foundation of Andrew Ellis imaginative, but not intrusive, lighting design. The rich colours seen in Them give way to a much more muted pallet in Us, and the design underlines the relationship between the two complementary pieces of dance. Us has stark top or side lighting as each scene demands. Whereas Them explores the otherness of society, Us examines the own-ness of the individual. So, the opening of Us reveals a tightly lit bare stage.

There is a certain polymathy about Keaton Henson, the composer of Us. He is a writer, an artist and a highly respected creator of many music forms. His score puts in context the much acclaimed 2017 short duet, also called Us. It mounts the sostenuto of Karl Jenkins with the ostinato of Philip Glass within a ground of pure lyricism, so suited to the mood of this piece.

Ellis’ lighting and costume designer Katharine Watt’s inspiration run in parallel. The colourful shell suits of Them are replaced by grey frockcoats and white chemises in Us.

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Us opens to a stark hexagon of frockcoated men, who steadily advance. Are they footmen? Are they pall-bearers? There is a compulsion in their movement, bound by a constraint that becomes more evident as they bounce on tiptoe. Maybe they are in a vehicle on a journey, but it has the impatient feel of a horse scratching the ground with its hoof, anxious to be on the move.

When they break free, it is into a lyrical dance that smacks of classical ballet, grandes jetés included. The ostinato breaks in and the dance becomes contemporary in style, almost folksy, until it is a stage reproduction of Matisse’s La Dance. But when the group dissipates into trios, pairs and individuals there is a terseness in their interaction.

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Reflecting the solo of the lonely figure in Them, a more organic liquid solo emerges, a dances of anguished solitude. Bradley Waller’s portrayal of the innermost torment of this individual is palpable. Here is a man full of longing for companionship. In his shirtsleeves, Waller seems a lost soul. The dance is intense yet with a fluidity of feeling.

The message that comes across is John Donne’s “No man is an island, entire of itself”. The much vaunted final duet, previously seen as a stand-alone piece, is a study in male bonding. Waller is joined by Harry Price in a passage of soaring intensity as the two bare-chested men meet and their companionship is cemented. The emotional and aesthetic potency increases as the trust between the two is realised. Faces are turned away and toward each other, arms touch in mutual support and their moves become as one. These become more than a pair with a common goal; they need each other for mutual survival. They could be the salt of industry, early miners, or seaman whose respect of each other is crucial. However the picture that emerges is inspired by Hellenic art: warriors. These are the First World War soldiers whose belief in each other leads to unbelievable sacrifices.

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Nevertheless, this double bill is not chiefly a vehicle for individual virtuosity, but is very much the work of art of a fully integrated ensemble, who almost breathe as one: Benjamin Knapper, Liam Riddick and Matthew Sandiford complete the sextet. These are practitioners who know their craft and apply it with consummate skill.

Within society there is an equilibrium between them and us, that is elusive as it is precise. This concept is superlatively studied in Them/Us in a production with spell-binding beauty and suffused with power, punch, and passion.

Mark Aspen
March 2019

Photography by George Piper

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