BalletBoyz Review by Franz Knupfer
Masculinity without the Machismo
Strength, speed, athleticism—all of these things are on full display with Balletboyz, the British dance company founded by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt. But these are exactly the things you’d expect from a company made entirely of male dancers. What makes Balletboyz truly cohesive and exceptional is the sense of camaraderie, teamwork and even tenderness between the dancers. I’d call it masculinity without the machismo.
This is evident with “Serpent,” the first piece on Balletboyz’s program at the Schnitzer. According to Liam Scarlett, the choreographer, “With my other work, the women really drive the piece, so with [their] absence… it was actually really nice to focus on the beauty of the male physique, in the sensitivity and the physicality and strength to make it something beautiful yet strong. Once you find that language and build upon it, it gets quite exhilarating.”
This exhilaration is especially clear in Scarlett’s duets. In a duet with Bradley Waller and Matthew Rees (who was planning to join The Royal Marines if he didn’t become part of Balletboyz), the dancers are woven seamlessly together, almost always touching as they tumble over and around each other. “Serpent” is set to the elegant and fluid music of the British composer Max Richter, and the movement, too, is fluid and deeply emotive, often evoking the piece’s namesake, particularly when the company groups together and the dancers undulate their back and shoulders. It’s a recurring motif and a poignant one, both opening and capping the piece like a serpent’s head and tail.
While Scarlett’s choreography feels more classical in its composition (while still being thoroughly modern), “Fallen,” which is choreographed by Russell Maliphant, is more edgy and menacing. Together with “Serpent,” the two pieces make for a strong program that truly shows the scope of what Balletboyz can do.
“Fallen” opens with the dancers circling around each other. Sometimes they’re locked together like brothers while at other times they circle as if preparing for a fight. This interplay of intimacy and hostility gives “Fallen” a palpable tension. The dancers climb on top of each other and then are lowered to the ground or carried over each other’s shoulders, stiffly, like corpses. In the process, the piece evokes the many different meanings of fallen. To be fallen is to be defeated, and in a militaristic sense, it means to die in battle.
One of the highlights of the piece (and the evening) is a powerful duet with Andrea Carrucciu and Matthew Sandiford where the dancers seem to do battle, fall into each other, and then part. And while the tension of a fight is a common theme in modern dance, Maliphant’s choreography makes it new and interesting. Carrucciu is surprisingly flexible and lithe while Sandiford has a muscular athleticism that provides a perfect counterpoint to Carrucciu’s movement. Like Scarlett, Maliphant plays entirely to the strengths of male dancers. I never felt that the piece was lacking in grace or flexibility, strengths that might more stereotypically be attributed to female dancers.
Balletboyz makes me feel as if I’m rooting for a team, a feeling I normally get with sporting events, not dance companies. There’s homegrown talent such as Adam Kirkham, whose ballet training is evident during a series of both rapid and graceful pirouettes in “Fallen.” There are underdogs who came to the game late, such as Matthew Sandiford, who didn’t discover dance until he was eighteen, yet became a featured dancer at the closing ceremony in London’s Olympic Games.
Ultimately, Balletboyz is a team worth cheering for, and that’s part of the reason the performance received one of the longest and loudest ovations I’ve heard this season. They’re playing one more night at the Schnitzer, and it’s not to be missed.