When Michael Nunn and Willian Trevitt set up their own company 11 years ago, they could trade on the contrast between their ex-Royal Ballet background and their blokeish presentation as regular guys with a video camera. When they performed duets together, audiences felt they knew who the ‘boyz’ (actually family men) were, thanks to their introductory video footage.
For the past three years they’ve been passing on their experience to an all-male company, with a recently-acquired studio base in Kingston upon Thames. Five from the first group of young men have now been joined by five newcomers. Much is made of their different backgrounds but only one of the ten (Matthew Rees) has had no formal dance training – though he has been a member of numerous youth dance groups. Audiences have no foreknowledge of who the dancers are as people or why they don’t have any female companions, apart from the somewhat misleading brand name of BalletBoyz.
This season’s double bill of new works by Liam Scarlett and Russell Maliphant leaves the company members anonymous, even though the choreographers drew on their particular qualities. Video clips before each piece focus on the choreographer and his creative process, not the cast. Scarlett treats the young men as beautiful bodies, organic shapes; Maliphant presents them as a warrior tribe. Both pieces challenge the dancers in ensemble work and duets but reveal little about them as individuals.
Scarlett’s Serpent, to episodic music by Max Richter (who composed Wayne McGregor’s Infra), is a sequence of scenes featuring dancers in flesh-coloured leggings that outline their glutei maximi. Lying on their sides at the start, their rounded hips resemble underwater pebbles, their upraised arms fronds of seaweed. Clustered together, upright, they could be the ribs of a sea-serpent. They break apart in a series of duets: Spartan youths, Graeco-Roman wrestlers, athletes, lovers?
As Scarlett says in his interview for DanceTabs, he wanted the movement to emanate from the torso, undulating along the limbs. Arms rear up like a cobra’s head about to strike, or grip around a partner’s waist in a python’s coils. Scarlett has extended his balletic vocabulary to include weight-sharing and high-flying lifts for these strong physiques, as well as slithering, roiling floorwork. Michael Hulls’s glowing lighting emphasises their sculptural contours, rendering us voyeurs of naked-seeming flesh.
Inventive though the choreography’s response is to the changing moods and tempi of the music, it loses impetus in a false ending. The stage empties and darkens for a brooding solo (by bearded Andrea Carrucciu). Does the intimate duet that follows with a boyish partner imply a doomed relationship? Where is Scarlett taking us? Leading up to a final tableau, all the men line up solemnly and enigmatically, before turning their backs to resume the opening picture, this time with a boy draped on a tall man’s shoulders – possibly the elegiac duet pair. I found it impossible to tell what Scarlett intends in this coda.
Maliphant’s Fallen comes as a tough-minded contrast after the interval. He has developed the defiance of gravity he learnt in The Rodin Project: bodies can seem suspended in flight, tumbling weightlessly onto each other or the stage surface. Dressed in semi-combat gear, the men are a community of warriors, preparing themselves for battle in ritual bouts and attack formations. Compared with Scarlett’s contrived couplings, Maliphant’s moves appear as readily reactive as capoeira and other martial arts manouevres. Armand Amar’s driving, drumming score speeds up to pound faster than heart beats, adding urgency to the men’s encounters.
They start facing each other in inner and outer circles, changing places as one group perches on the other five’s shoulders, then crouch in counter-clockwise scrambles. They use each other as springboards, trusting they’ll be caught; they clamber onto thighs and spines, balance horizontally between supporters, hang from a throat or elbow. Hulls’s dramatic lighting suggests desolate surroundings, though this band of survivors will never be cowed. Fallen, an exhilarating closer of the double bill, presents the company at its heart-stopping best.