Julian Eaves reviews the latest work from Balletboyz Them/Us now playing at the Vaudeville Theatre, London.
Getting to see abstract dance in the West End is a bit of a treat, even if the helping is such a small one. Six male dancers here, on stage for barely 55 minutes in total, in two items separated by a 20 minute interval and both introduced by lengthy film clips, for which you pay between £25 and £65, sitting in either stalls or dress circle (the grand is closed). The two pieces are quite different.
The first, ‘Them’, is a collectively devised work, based around a completely open and undressed stage, with the performers wearing the first of Katherine Watt’s outfits – these very ‘streetwear’ – manipulating and climbing over and draping themselves around a steel rectilinear cuboid frame. It’s an interesting exercise, with pleasant, intellectually thoughtful string music composed specially for it by Charlotte Harding, and interspersed with blasts of pop (which might also be hers). With so much energy being provided by the soundscape, it came as a bit of a relief when the massive prop was shifted out of the way and the dancers could just, well, dance. They’re rather good at it. This made you wonder why they had got hold of that great lump of metal in the first place. Andrew Ellis’s lighting was functional, but given the bare back and side walls visible to all he seemed to have opted for nothing much more than a ‘rehearsal’ look. And, ultimately, that’s what the piece ends up feeling like. (Curiously, the production photographs – by George Piper, I believe – all show this piece with a smooth background, allowing the eye to concentrate on the human figures in the field. Maybe I’d like the piece more were I able to see it without the distractions of step-ladders and wiring in the way?)
After the interval, things improve dramatically. In ‘Us’, we get the single vision of an extremely good choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, who has a masterful eye, with a sure and poetic sense of groupings, lines, pace, shape, variation, and everything you expect (and pay for) choreography to provide. This raises the artistic bar of the evening handsomely, and casts the first half very much into its shade. Watt smartens up the boys no end for this piece, and Ellis, Nunn and Trevitt collaborate to light it with theatrical enthusiasm, creating exciting reaches of depth and dimension. And – thankfully – we don’t have to stare at those unloved walls anymore: the luxury of some simple flats to mask the tawdry reality of the backstage is a welcome move. Moreover, the musical score, here using the same string configuration but without the nods to the rock industry, comes from a composer with a much more heart-felt and intense voice, Keaton Henson: his pulsing, throbbing sounds – arranged with superb technical finesse by Ben Foskett – put one very much in mind of Lou Harrison, and reflect a kind of impassioned tonalism that is more than just attractive. This is a piece that any company would be glad to have in its rep. And were it part of a triple bill of the same sort of quality, I think it would be quite satisfying.
As for the men themselves, they all acquit themselves respectably. In the first half, their own steps (moderated by the rehearsal director, Charlotte Pook, and also the artistic directors and founders of the company, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt) keep them very much in their ‘safety zone’: they execute everything neatly and tidily but never seem to do anything that takes the mind, heart, or spirit elsewhere. Quite different is the impact of Wheeldon’s much more exacting and dramaturgically focussed language: here we see his line-up pushed beyond what they can easily accomplish, and they have to work hard to attain a physical representation of his ideas. Yes, at times the ensemble is seen to be not quite as tight as it might be, and I wonder why this might be: has the first half somewhat lulled their attention and allowed them to lose something of the sharp precision Wheeldon expects? I’m not sure. For the record, the whole team – of whom you will see half a dozen at any performance – are: Edward Arnold; Benjamin Knapper; Paolo Pisarra; Harry Price; Liam Riddick; Dominic Rocca; Matthew Sandiford and Bradley Waller.
The company’s mission is to reach out and popularise dance. They certainly have built a following, too, and the fans who attended on press night all seemed to like what they saw. That may be enough for this market. For those who want a little more meat on the bones of their terpsichore, this may leave you wanting more. And remember, without the interval and film clips, it’s a very short show.