BalletBoyz’ programme of two short works at the New Theatre on Tuesday showcased the hugely energetic talent of this all-male dance company. Them, a collaborative work between the dancers and composer Charlotte Harding, gave the cast an opportunity to display their considerable technical skills. Harding has worked with BalletBoyz before (she paired with choreographer Craig Revel Horwood for The Indicator Line), and this was an adventurous and exciting work built around the possibilities offered by a giant cuboid scaffold, which the dancers turned and manipulated about the stage. A prop, a piece of scenery, a climbing frame, or simply a space to dance in; it was all these things, and also a source of metaphorical and literal suspense as the dancers’ movement controlled, (or was controlled by) it. At one point, a dancer lay across its lower bar, and was lifted up, suspended like a rag doll; later, he gripped it with one hand and rose suspended in the air above the stage as the structure slowly turned over. Another dancer used the lower bars like a tightrope while it rocked and rotated, and at one magical moment the cast coalesced into a single silhouetted shape as one dancer climbed over them to perch on the very top corner. The costumes (80s-style tracksuits that caught the light) emphasised the athletic movement quality, sometimes confrontational but mostly co-operative, as when they wove around each other holding hands, joining the line one by one, looping under or crossing over each other’s arms until they were all linked in a chain. There was an occasional feeling of drifting or aimlessness, perhaps due to the work’s collective origins and the lack of a single choreographic mind, but the piece hung together.

At the opening of Christopher Wheeldon’s work Us, my first thought was that the names of the pieces had been inadvertently swapped: Them had seemed to be a statement by the dancers of ‘who we are’, whereas Us opened with the audience looking in on ‘them’ from the outside in a manner that towards the end felt almost voyeuristic. Gone were the circus skills, and we were in more familiar contemporary dance territory as six dancers in khaki tail coats (waiters? musicians? wedding guests?) danced in edgy unison, or teetered from one foot to the other embodying emotional uncertainty. I enjoyed the sense of composition, balance, and occasional surprises, such as when one dancer seemed to fly like a bird leaping over another lying on the stage, The dancers gradually shed their outer garments until they were bare-chested, perhaps representing the culmination of a gradually growing intimacy. However, the first section did not lead logically into the duet for two men that followed, and the two parts of the work felt disjointed and unconnected.

The duet, to a score by Keaton Henson, expresses the shared yearning emotion of two men who love each other, and has received high critical acclaim since it was first performed as an independent work in 2017. It was very beautifully danced, but the composition itself, to (no doubt intentionally) repetitive music, lacks the spark that choreography for two contrasting dancers would create simply by revealing their differences. The overall ‘sameness’ of an all-male ensemble presents an artistic challenge. Difference is important: Arthur Mitchell said of George Balanchine’s decision to cast him with Diana Adams in Agon “My skin color against hers, it became part of the choreography”,[1] and in a traditional grand pas de deux the physical differences between the male and female dancers and their ways of dancing help to fire an emotional response in the audience. It is certainly possible to achieve powerful effects in dance about same-sex relationships (consider the very different examples of Ieva Kuniskis’ They Live Next Door,[2] and Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake[3]), but in this instance too much similarity resulted in a lack of theatrical force. This is not a problem that will go away, so long as BalletBoyz remains an all-male ensemble; perhaps it is time to consider directly involving women in creating the dance.

Maggie Watson

24th April 2019