My first glimpse into Iván Pérez’s Young Men, a meditation on the emotional trauma of war, was a brief preview the choreographer showed in August 2014 as part of a mixed bill from the BalletBoyz. The screening was promising, particularly in sentiment, but I found it structurally and thematically unsteady. Moreover, I felt its sleek, affected veneer inadvertently glamourised the very violence the piece sought to lament.
Happily, Pérez’s full-length offering – which premiered in January at Sadler’s Wells with two women added to the formerly all-male cast, and returned there this week – is altogether more cohesive and authentic. Where his preview cluttered together a slew of vague war-inspired motifs into a single blurred scene, this version is neatly divvied into ten full-bodied episodes, each inspired by research Perez undertook into historical documents and footage of early twentieth-century conflicts. ‘Desperate Disguise’ depicts a wife staggering across no man’s land, searching for her husband amid the ruins; ‘Training of a Soldier’ sees a sergeant bark orders at cadets undergoing drills; in ‘Gas, Gas, Gas’ a troop of soldiers gasp their way through a toxic fog. The tone is unyieldingly sober, though Perez astutely works in some variety by parsing out the nuances of his gloomy subject: there’s the panic of combat, the stress of military quarters, the misery of PTSD, the despair of bereavement.
The episodic format works nicely: there’s ample scope to explore each scene’s premise, which in turn lends the piece the weight and substance its desolate theme requires (and which the screening sorely lacked). For the most part, the episodes are tightly choreographed and deftly executed. ‘Battlefield Landscape’ is particularly striking: a swoosh of sand falls from the ceiling, burying an unwitting soldier and ushering in a climactic battle of flying limbs and sudden falls into the trenches. ‘Shell Shock’ is likewise stirring: a man, stripped down to his underwear, performs a jerky solo that gestures at the naked brutality of war, his contorted postures underscoring its ugliness and dispelling the notion that violence is in any way beautiful.
The piece offers few scraps of hope for us to cling to – even the final vignette, in which two women tenderly welcome home a veteran, is more backward than forward-facing – but it’s not cynical. Even when they’re defeated, the characters are robust in the face of distress, their outstretched fingers and suspended extensions nods to their resolve. Keaton Henson’s evocative score further buoys the work, balancing industrial strums and pounding percussion with soaring lyrical melodies. That the orchestra performs right behind the dancers on stage keeps these notes rousingly close to the action.
In this current incarnation, Young Men proves a moving and sensitively handled work. Its depiction of war as a liminal space frequently employs disjointed, suspended phrases, but I found it as a whole a superbly cohesive offering.