William Trevitt and Michael Nunn have taken their BalletBoyz company up a few gears with this latest work, pitching their 11 male dancers – and two guest women – into an intense, demanding, full-length piece exploring the horrors of war. Is it World War One? Trevitt, Nunn and Spanish choreographer Ivan Perez wanted a wider range of reference than that, hence ambiguous costuming, but sections entitled Gas, Gas, Gas and Shell Shock do place it rather firmly in 1914-18 territory.
Young Men certainly leaves you in no doubt, however, about the physical prowess of this all-male company. The wrenching, full-throttle movement created by Perez feels relentless, and yet the Boyz’ control is faultless: each desperate flailing move or death throe is nailed. At the end, as they stand in a final line at the front of the stage, panting after their exertions, you wonder how they have the energy to remain upright. But threaded through the drama of contorted limbs – bodies thrown and splayed by bomb-blasts, sent reeling by striking bullets or writhing in battlefield struggles – there are stories of great tenderness. Perez knows how to slow action down simply by having two dancers make and maintain eye contact. He also keeps bodies in close proximity, moving them with varying forms of circularity, singly and together, to emphasise bonds, so the disruptions he then introduces feel even more brutal.
Young Men is composed of ten set pieces, each focusing on a different aspect of war, fractured in terms of sequence (which is a bit discombobulating) but held together by fluid choreography. The first half’s selection runs more smoothly than the second, which seems to have suffered from a last-minute, bad-choice shift in ordering. But throughout there is a mix of ‘wide-screen’ visions of conflict and group camaraderie with ‘close-up’ individual stories. Andrea Carrucciu’s affecting portrayal of severe shell-shock’s jerking spasms is particularly striking – especially as it ends with him being dressed once more in uniform, to be packed off to fight again. And Perez makes poignant, impressively unsentimental use of female dancers Dalma Doman and Jennifer White. White is captivating as a disguised woman searching for her man at the front, only to be wrenched away when she finds him; both women are quietly moving as they try to comfort Bradley Waller’s gaunt, stumbling, nightmare-wracked home-coming soldier.
Intimacy seeps into large-scale scenes, too: it may be a cliché to turn a tussle into an embrace, but it’s powerfully rendered here when Matthew Rees’s soldier goes mad and turns on his comrades. There are some moments in the group pieces, though, where it feels as if the limits of this danced exploration of fighting and violence have been reached and Perez has lapsed into a little too much repetition. Equally, although the on-stage presence of an orchestra playing Keaton Henson’s commissioned score means the theatre is richly filled with sound, the music itself sometimes feels a tad predictable and obviously manipulative with its soaring filmic strings. As a punishing workout for the Boyz’ skills, though, it’s definitely mission accomplished.