Review: BalletBoyz - Young Men - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 14 - 18 January 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 16 January 2015

BalletBoyz - 'Young Men'. Photo: Bettina Strenske

The big surprise in this world premiere from the BalletBoyz is that two of the “Boyz” are girls. It’s an ironic twist to an all-male company presenting a work entitled Young Men. Along with the welcome shedding of the reality show inference of “the Talent” from the company’s former title and this ambitious step up into a major full-length production with a new and excellent score – played live on stage – the inclusion of female dancers heralds a further gear-change in the BalletBoyz’ ever-evolving dynamic*. They have already accelerated rapidly into the premier league of dance theatre, but in terms of style and substance, it might be more apt to record that the BalletBoyz are developing and refining a genre that puts them in a league all of their own.

This 90-minute work by Iván Pérez comprises ten scenes, equally divided across two acts. There is no linear development of a story but a powerful narrative theme of comradeship in war loosely connects the sequential flow. Eleven men sharing an athletic activity might normally constitute a soccer team but this squad are essentially “squaddies”, representing countless generation of young men who have had to go to war, invariably because of the decisions of old men. Pérez has clearly been exercised especially by The Great War of exactly a century ago but costumes and influences also spread to WWII. Although Pérez trained in Cuba and lives in the Netherlands, where he came to prominence as a leading dancer with Nederlands Dans Theater, his influences inevitably encompass stories from the Civil War in his Spanish homeland.

Four of the guys have been with the company for five or six seasons, and another four are in their third year as BalletBoyz. They instinctively embody the comradeship of a group that has been together – on the road, on tour, and in the studio – for a period that has already been as long as a major war. The initial rough charm of “The Talent” is still there but now tempered by the maturity of experience and professionalism. This is a group of guys that look well capable of coming out on top in a bar room brawl but nonetheless dance together with a palpable gentleness and sensitivity. This was especially true in the opening scenes of Act I and throughout most of Act 2. The use of a scrim (a translucent curtain across the front of the stage) at the beginning of both acts established an effective blurring of boundaries, both in a theatrical sense (where the small orchestra was hidden upstage behind two screens, the farthest from the audience hosting projections depicting a parade ground wall or a woodland backdrop to a battle); and thematically as in the confusing aftermath of battle or in the desperate, gagging throes of a gas attack.

A couple of scenes were uncomfortable to watch with Keaton Henson’s evocative score dramatically switching cadence and gaining volume and Jackie Shemesh’s lighting similarly changing tack to be delivered through banks of vicious spotlights glaring from the side and back of the stage. In one of these scenes, Andrea Carrucciu gave a harrowing account of the mental agonies of shell shock. And, in the final scene of the first act, the delirious nightmares of trench-bound soldiers were vividly portrayed, providing huge contrast with the inherent softness of the opening episodes.

The occasional presence of the women, often enigmatically drifting through the soldiers’ space, was a clever device. Hungarian dancer, Delma Dolman, was the central, wistful figure of the first sequence (entitled Aftermath of War) and the charismatic and transfixing presence of Jennifer White, stunning in high-waisted trousers that nonetheless must have been a nightmare to dance in, reaffirmed her status as one of the most versatile dancers on the UK contemporary scene. In another company she might have stolen those scenes but this is a well-knit, unified collective where the whole unit dancing as one entity is the star. This holistic quality was already firmly evident in the male-only performances of Fallen and Serpent from the previous BalletBoyz – the Talent programme, a film of which will be a highlight of the BBC Four Song and Dance Season, coincidentally launched at Sadler’s Wells earlier in the day of this world premiere with a duet from Russell Maliphant’s award-winning Fallen, danced by Leon Poulton and Adam Kirkham.

What I like especially about this company – an attribute taken directly from its co-founders, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt – is an all-pervading cavalier spirit. Interviewed for the programme, Trevitt tells my colleague Siobhan Murphy, that Young Men will ‘bankrupt the company’. It’s an audacious attitude to risk that has so far seen Nunn and Trevitt cashing in the creative chips (if not the money) time-after-time and Young Men continues this high rolling adventure with the wheel of fortune still very much spinning in their favour. It is, of course, nothing to do with luck but an intuitive grasp of creating entertaining dance theatre and putting together the right team to achieve it. That requires single-minded leadership or in the case of Nunn and Trevitt, two minds that appear to think, and promptly act decisively, as one.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until Sunday

Photos: Bettina Strenske

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for Dancing Times, Dance Europe, Shinshokan Dance Magazine in Japan,, and other magazines and websites in Europe and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards in the UK. Find him on Twitter @GWDanceWriter

*In their early years, as George Piper Dances, the company did include female dancers.

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post comments.

Sign in now

What’s On