Deluxe by BalletBoyz can be seen online on Sadler’s Wells Facebook Premieres from Friday 27 March, 7.30pm for one week only, and upcoming on BBC Four for BBC Culture in Quarantine (date to be announced).
Michael Nunn and William Trevitt founded the BalletBoyz company twenty years ago and the all-male group has established its own unique place in UK contemporary dance, commissioning a notably wide range of choreographers. From early on they began including short films introducing each live performance, sometimes irreverent and offbeat, determined to demystify the process and appeal to a broad audience. As filmmakers, they have produced versions of their company’s Young Men (about the First World War) and the more recent Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words for the BBC. So if anyone was speedily going to grasp the opportunity to put out digital content in our current trying COVID-19 circumstances, you would think of them. And they have a special 20th anniversary programme to celebrate, Deluxe, featuring new works, made to new music.
Deluxe is available from 27 March on Sadler’s Wells Facebook page, and it’s an enterprising mix of short films from the rehearsal studio (which would have been projected in live performance) and performances of two new works, filmed earlier this year. Both commissions are from female choreographers, and they present strikingly different visions of the dancers, from aggressive uptight in-your-face masculinity to a serene, delicate and meditative. The contrast is fascinating. It is brilliantly well danced by the cast of six, and really is a welcome treat in these difficult times.
First up is The Intro, a short piece by Sarah Golding, to brassy music by SEED Ensemble, which was shown on film in their tour. All six of the dancers are in white boiler suits, and the camera is right up in there, almost unnervingly close, as if you are sharing the performance space with them. It has a light-hearted air of larking about and the dancers don’t ignore the camera, they come right up to it to look you right in the eye. It’s short, sweet, informal – a good introduction to the raw physicality of the cast.
There’s a five-minute film preceding Bradley 4:18, with choreographer Maxine Doyle (of Punchdrunk), in the studio rehearsing with the cast, and discussing the ideas behind the work. They describe it as the thoughts of the insomniac Bradley at 4:18 in the morning, and all the different aspects of his character that emerge.
Bradley 4:18 is a dark work, most obviously in the literal sense. The dancers are shrouded in gloom, but then this is something of a dark night of the soul. We start with a series of solos of Bradleys. The first is angry, pent up, disgusted, clawing at his suit jacket, the next more of a lost boy, hysterical, babbling about running out of milk, not coping, the third more preening, dancing as if he expects to be observed, full of bravado. They all have a black eye and the suit is stained as if it’s been rolled in the gutter. They lunge and roll, movement spiky and sharp, full of aggression. Other dancers join in duets and trios. They mirror each other, pulling together and pushing apart like magnets. One of them is the guy looking for a fight that you really don’t want to meet on the night bus. They slam down on to the floor and then spring up as if ready for combat.
The filming homes in on the individual dancer, and as a result you barely glimpse the white square construction that hangs over the stage. In the theatre this might have more impact as a confining box that defines the field of play.
There’s a break for a softer mood where the jackets are removed and the lighting shifts to a pinkish hue. The jazz from Cassie Kinoshi, previously harsh, abrasive, and sometimes chaotic in feel becomes sweeter and more melodic here. The cast slump together, like drunks suddenly turned affectionate, but the mood doesn’t last, drowned out by a babble of voices, and we revert to solos and duets that manage to be tender but aggressive at the same time. It’s a complex and nuanced picture of masculinity, vulnerable, angry, confused, destructive, sometimes lost. The dancing from the entire cast is terrific.
Ripple is a different creature altogether. This is the first UK work by Shanghai-based choreographer Xie Xin. In the introductory film, she’s asked what it’s like working with an all-male cast for the first time and looks anxious. She is soft-spoken but clear. “Be kind, be gentle” she instructs a duo. This is not a work so much about characters but about water and ocean, flow and surge.
The dancers are clad in loose-fitting wide trousers and tops in an attractive variety of muted shades. (Costume design is by Katherine Watt). The work starts in silence and the music from electronic composer Jiang Shaofeng takes a while to arrive, mixed in with the sounds of waves on a pebble beach. The mood is quiet, reflective, restrained. They might be monks doing exercises in meditation: but perhaps it would be better to think of them as forces of nature. The movement is liquid and flowing. The dancers are always in motion, spinning, sinking to the floor with a boneless quality. They could be seaweed turning gently in the current. It’s calming and contemplative, and interesting to see how the same dancers have shifted from strutting bravado to this pensive elegance.
Both live pieces are filmed quite simply, from one camera. It’s the view that you would have if you were sitting at one end of the front row. Sometimes in Ripple I did regret not having a more central view of the groupings that Xie Xin set up, but that is a very minor quibble. On the plus side, there is a sense of being up close and personal with the dancers, who might land right in front of you. And there are none of those distracting cuts from camera to camera which can irritate.
The BalletBoyz dancers on this occasion are Joseph Barton, Benjamin Knapper, Harry Price, Liam Riddick, Matthew Sandiford and Will Thompson and collectively they are as accomplished and as versatile as we have come to expect. It’s great that this programme has been made available for everyone under the current circumstances. Enjoy it. Happy 20th birthday to the BalletBoyz, and we look forward to seeing more from you in happier times.