The final week of April brought thought-provokingly contrasted dance performances to Oxford. On Tuesday 23rd at the New Theatre the BalletBoyz performed their latest programme Them/Us, shortly to be opening for their first West End season at the Vaudeville Theatre. This two-part programme involves all six male dancers in both pieces. Opening the evening Them was a collaborative choreographic venture by the dancers drawing on elements of their own individual movement, sharing them in a succession of often playful episodes and exchanges. Set in a twilight zone, a gleaming stainless steel tubular cube framework and sleek satin shell suits brought enlivening geometric dashes of light and colour, red, blue, green and purple. The cube defined shifting spaces which the dancers could manipulate, inhabit, swing from and climb up. Movement combined sharp crisp gesture with a lyrical contemporary idiom, integrating tumbling and floorwork in response to Charlotte Harding’s lively but dark toned score; suggestions of character and relationship were glimpsed and a feeling of camaraderie and group identity emerged, even if overall the episodic structure of the piece did not build a sense of narrative or situational development. The performers conveyed lithe fluidity and a smooth assurance, distinct from the rawness of previous BalletBoyz ensembles; no longer projecting a company narrative of emerging talent and inexperienced diamonds in the rough, but a polished professional group.

Following the interval, as Christopher Wheeldon’s Us got under way I wondered whether I had confused Us with Them. A similar movement palate of a fluid contemporary hybrid occasionally leavened with tense jogging made for dancing minimally distinguishable in style from the Boyz own collaborative work and left me wondering who was borrowing from whom. Beyond the sleek extended lines and physiques there was little indication of balletic roots, either of the choreographer or implied by the company’s appellation, which might have brought an altered dynamic or flavour. The work expanded on a duet made by Wheeldon in 2016, now framed with moody ensemble dances for the six men and set in a dark monochrome space with hazy downlighting.   Long gauzy grey jackets were discarded to reveal loose shirts, and finally bare chests for the central duet, preceded by a lengthy inward looking solo performed with sensitive commitment. However the lack of context set up through the empty black space or the ensemble dancing to explain the anguished demeanour of the central protagonists, and the ultimately cloying repetitiousness of Keaton Henson’s music for an overlong duet raised in me a sense of alienation. Dwelling on the yearning of two beautiful young men left little imaginative scope to respond, directing us effectively to admire their spot-lit physicality rather than empathize with their unknowable situation.

A largely female audience applauded enthusiastically; seemingly unbothered by a dance worldview in which they play no part at all, no longer even the traditional feminine role of beautiful body to be admired. When BalletBoyz originally emerged it could be argued that they were bringing a needed fresh perspective, and by their work encouraging greater take up by young men of dance training and careers. However their all male choreography as well as performance sits within a widely perceived hegemony of male choreographers and a promotion of athletic physicality in today’s dance environment, contributing to the normalization of a masculine perspective on dance evident in more prominent and better funded theatrical productions. When funding applicants are required to give account of their attempts to meet perceived needs for diversity how can this masculine monoculture be justified? The absence of women and the apparent lack of interest in them as dancers or in their perspective as creators, merely as audience consumers, runs the risk of being read as a form of unconscious bias.

Two days later in the minute Burton Taylor studio behind Oxford Playhouse, Rhiannon Faith’s Smack That offered a very different experience and perspective to another female audience including a large group of dance students – and three brave men. The transformative BT space became the locus for a party complete with pink chairs surrounding a central space, balloons and poppers; we were regaled on entering with punch and cartons of popcorn. Six women all named Bev in identical silver wigs and mini-dresses with socks and trainers welcomed us as adjunct Bevs with sticky name tags, chat and giggles. Under our seats were boxes, presents tied with pink ribbon later to be unpacked. Our chaotic team of hostesses set a tone of abandoned disco dancing, banter and sharing of personal stories, as though at an unruly hen-night cajoling us into playing silly party games and sharing risqué jokes and confessions. Yet this chaotic and warmly fuzzy atmosphere lead into shockingly dark material as one by one the Bevs’ developing stories of the real abusive relationships they had experienced became more disturbingly graphic, and the shared responses of the surrounding party goers to searching personal questions almost unwittingly began to reveal a wider social context of misogyny with the potential to shade into abuse.

I genuinely admire how this truly interactive show seamlessly integrated imaginative evocations of emotional states and deeply problematic relationships with a serious informational agenda, taking a complicit audience on a rollercoaster ride switching instantly between party euphoria and horrible reality. Episodes of verbal storytelling alternated with dancing of often brutal physicality, falls, leaps and rolls interspersed with yells and roars of pain, the initial jauntiness of the evening giving way to desperation. As well as sweets our party boxes ceremoniously unwrapped in unison contained information about support services, as did the parcel passed round for excited and nervous unwrapping. Having offered us slices of an inoffensive Victoria sponge the cake later became the chilling symbolic centrepiece of a graphic depiction of sexual violence, an image I find hard to forget. Following the distant, glossy “look but don’t touch” performance of BalletBoyz in a big theatre, Faith’s intimate and disturbing event was a visceral reminder of the communicative power of live dance theatre.

On television the final of the BBC Young Dancer of the Year was uplifting in the evidence it provided of a talented and dedicated generation of young dancers on the verge of becoming professionals. Frustratingly the show’s hyperbolic celebrity commentary seems to find little space for the detail of constructive expert critique that might reveal why one dancer was chosen above another; and there is always a sense of the impossibility of comparing apples with oranges. Emma Gladstone of Dance Umbrella commented revealingly on the way in which genres were increasingly becoming closer and more cross-fertilised, and this was very apparent in the street dance and contemporary categories, which while initially impressive began to look overall rather the same. But in the light of my recent viewing as detailed above I was also sadly aware of the separation of genders. None of the three young male finalists in street and contemporary dance opted to perform a duet with a female colleague; while the engaging Bharatanatyam soloist worked with another female dancer to depict a touching mother and daughter relationship. So it was left to the ballet finalist to offer the only mixed gender duet; the hackneyed Don Quixote pas de deux. I hope that in future competitions there may be more positive and interesting examples of young men and women dancing together than this very familiar virtuoso piece. If dance works provide a window onto current culture and attitudes the events reviewed above suggest that in the construction and reflection of gender some serious creative dialogue is needed to bridge a very dysfunctional gap.

Susie Crow

3rd June 2019