Having missed the opening night of the BalletBoyz tour, at Sadler’s Wells, a few weeks ago, I caught up with it, just three bus stops away from my home, in the spacious and welcoming surroundings of North Finchley’s artsdepot. The theatre was sold out and yet, despite the full house, I was able to sit and enjoy an affordable pre-show drink in comfort, which reminded me that it is so easy to overlook the benefits on one’s doorstep. Getting home in less than ten minutes just added to the bargain. It gave me just enough time to wonder why I’d considered going to Sadler’s Wells, in the first place!
The smaller environment of the artsdepot auditorium provided an intimacy that worked well although it came at the expense of live music. Both new works possess a strong visual appeal with minimal stage apparatus: rabbit head masks and a swing in Rabbit and not much more than a barre in Fiction. Perhaps with tongue firmly in his cheek, Michael Nunn (co-founder of the BalletBoyz with William Trevitt) told the audience in a post-show Q&A that the barre was all the set they could afford; and that only because they already had one!
Perhaps it was also a matter of money, but it is worth noting that the programme seemed light, like a triple bill that was missing the last act. It was certainly not one of those dance theatre evenings that could be considered over-long. However, any concerns over quantum were over-ridden by the many diverse qualities in both works.
Pontus Lidberg is a prolific Swedish choreographer with over 40 dance works already to his credit across Europe as well as in China and the USA; but, as yet, he is little-known in the UK. Rabbit combines elegant movement with surreal imagery in non-narrative dance that appears to be themed by ideas of solitariness and belonging. The dancers’ waistcoats, ties, trousers and shorts hint at the Edwardian age. They also sometimes wear rabbit masks. Beginning and ending with a solitary figure suggests loneliness, a man far from the crowd as perhaps anonymised by the other guys in rabbit masks. Although, there is no white rabbit in this particular warren – the masks appear identical – there is nonetheless an “Alice through the Looking Glass” feel to Lidberg’s surrealism.
The loss of live music is felt most keenly here, since Lidberg uses Henryk Górecki’s haunting, meditative, minimalist Kleines Requiem für eine Polka, a work for piano and twelve other single instruments, thus creating a further dimension of solitariness that appears to gel perfectly with the choreographic intent. Górecki – who died in 2010 – spent most of his life in Southern Poland, his work being largely contained within the iron curtain; although this piece dates to 1993, when his international acclaim was beginning to flourish. If I recall correctly, this particular piece was used in the late 1990s by Mats Ek; so it seems to have a particular appeal to Swedish choreographers. It certainly provides a special resonance with Lidberg’s fluid, sentimental movement, notably in the powerful duets and solos, which punctuate the 25-minute work.
The Fiction in Javier de Frutos’ new work comes in the purpose for the accompanying words of dance critic, Ismene Brown; namely a premature obituary for the choreographer himself. Her text is accurate in every respect other than the imagined manner of de Frutos’ demise. The dancers are called together at the aforementioned barre to be told that their choreographer has met his end, impaled on the sharp point of a broken shard of plastic, falling from the set.
The performance takes place to a mixed soundtrack that juxtaposes Jim Carter (the butler, “Carson” from Downton Abbey) reading Brown’s obituary with a melancholy, yet jazzy, score by Ben Foskett, further interspersed with samples from Donna Summer’s catchy disco hit, Last Dance, which de Frutos has apparently already pencilled in for his own funeral, hopefully in many decades to come. Carter’s reading of Brown’s obituary is recorded with all the fluffs and repeats kept in and eventually it is interleaved with a simultaneous reading by Imelda Staunton (Carter’s wife) and – as the work comes to an end – the last leg of their reading relay is taken up by Sir Derek Jacobi.
The dancers – in rehearsal uniform of white t-shirts and black tracksuit trousers – perform after learning of their choreographer’s demise and the group dynamic – often moving collectively on, through and over the barre – moves from an aggressive reaction to the pointlessness of it all to melancholic expressions of loss. In a programme entitled Life, de Frutos has created a danced ode to the many senses of bereavement. His dancers arch over the barre like salmon leaping through a waterfall, or flex and stretch like Olympian hurdlers. There is an athletic urgency in the group dancing that provides a consistent vigour against which the solitary poignancy of the ending, with a lone dancer (Marc Galvez) gently gyrating to the Donna Summer song is especially strong.
And yet for all the visual appeal of the dance, Fiction is a treat for the ears. Foskett is a composer with an impressive CV of arrangements and orchestrations for modern ballets (including The Winter’s Tale and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for Joby Talbot/Christopher Wheeldon and Second Breath for Andy Cowton/Russell Maliphant) but, as yet, with few original compositions for dance to his own credit. But, I was reminded of his outstanding original composition for The Scarlet Pimpernel, performed by London Children’s Ballet in 2006, which I recall as an expressive and descriptive illustration of the narrative. Ten years’ on and Foskett has scored another triumph; as have the BalletBoyz!