It was almost seven months ago that I booked tickets to see this, as we hadn’t caught the Balletboyz for a few yearz. I was always impressed by the way they took the media and used it to further their post-Royal Ballet careers and I am sure they have done a lot for widening the appeal of ballet and contemporary dance, which has to be worth a round of applause in itself.
But surely those Boyz are getting on a bit now? To be honest I’d be surprised if they couldn’t still dazzle like in the old days, and I hoped they would make even just a brief appearance but it seems they are Officially Retired from the stage. So whilst the stage of the Milton Keynes theatre was ablaze with Ballet Boys, they weren’t the Ballet Boyz, if you get my drift.
They have done some extensive recruiting which you can read about in the programme and at last night’s show presented eight young male dancers, performing their socks off and as close to the top of their game as you could reasonably expect. I bet Michael and Billy are terrific coaches and mentors.
The first dance is Russell Maliphant’s Torsion, which was always their top party piece. It’s now been extended to become a dance for six. When Da Boyz used to do it, it was a real duel; full of antagonism and aggressive confrontation; you felt that when they danced in unison it was full of resentment, and they needed to break apart and attain domination. It’s always been a real tour de force. This new staging has transformed it into a much less aggressive, more supportive piece; it has softer edges and you feel that the characters are actually helping and caring for each other rather than trying to get one up on each other.
The lighting was great – as it was for the entire evening. In the opening sequence, I really liked how each dancer was trapped in their own spotlight position, dancing anything from gracefully to frenziedly but with their feet still largely secured to the floor and certainly not breaking out of the light circle. The overwhelming sense I got from the piece was one of immense control. The dancers’ movements were so fluid and assured, it really was quite incredible to watch. It’s unnecessary to identify any one particular dancer’s excellence over another in such a uniform company, but I really must commend Leon Poulton’s remarkable ability to dance on his knees. I was wincing in referred pain as I watched, spellbound. When the whole dance had finished Mrs Chrisparkle and I turned to each other and exchanged mutual wows. I felt that they had really laid down the gauntlet of a standard of excellence for other contemporary dance companies to achieve.
Introducing the second item was a short video, in pure Balletboyz tradition. It showed the new company in audition, in rehearsal, and on the beach. And huddling semi-naked together. Apparently in jockstraps. I know sex sells, but I think when they throw those images in for no other relevant reason to the dance itself, they slightly cheapen their brand. Maybe because I was on “sex-alert” by this stage, I found the second piece, Alpha, choreographed by Paul Roberts, slightly uncomfortable to watch. As with the previous piece, it was danced with superb fluidity and strong grace, but I found the floaty costumes that deliberately evaporated away from chests and arms a little disconcerting. Mrs C, on the other hand, found it captivating. The backing music of slide guitar and voice by Keaton Henson summoned up a relaxed and lazy air which was sometimes at odds with the high energy dance work. It ends with some strong visual images and exciting acrobatic dancing, but I confess it was my least favourite of the night.
Leading into the third and final dance, Void by Jarek Cemerek, is another video which continues playing as the dance unfolds and transforms the back of the stage into a dismal urban landscape, perfect for the street events Void depicts. The endless rut of approaching car and departing bus gives a feeling of permanent despair and you guess that’s what the lives of these dancing hoodies would be like. A clever light effect on the dancers’ faces makes them look criss-crossed, like a mesh effect, suggestive of their being trapped in a cage. A superbly ominous backing track develops into a big fight scene between the dancers, as though West Side Story has just met the 21st century. The dance explodes into a cross between violent attack and circus style tumbling as the characters career and collide into each other, changing allegiances and heightening tension.
There’s a (relatively) simple but visually memorable sequence when six of them gather on the remaining one, isolated by light, which leads to an eloquent solo by (I think) Anthony Middleton. All throughout the dance the video wall remains a gloomy visual framework. Mrs C felt it was probably the best integration of video and dance she has ever seen, and I think she’s darn right. Another great light trick is played in the final sequence when the dancers are silhouetted against a bright background and a sudden snap of darkness causes a rapid conclusion to the dance. Really stunning stuff. Some of it put me in mind of Christopher Bruce at his best – I think Mr Cemerek may be a great choreographer of the future.
The programme notes discuss the decision to make this an all-male company. The Original-B-Boyz believe that the company’s work and identity was always male-dominated, and that whilst they did have female dancers too, most notably Oxana Panchenko, who I personally always really enjoyed in their appearances a few years ago, it probably gives them greater artistic freedom to be an all-male company, because, basically, they can chuck each other around as tough as they like. Whilst I’m sure this is true, for me, I did feel a slight sense of imbalance at this all-male world. But this is a mere quibble. Balletboyz – The Talent is a superb presentation of contemporary dance; strong, controlled, quirky, graceful, supportive and constantly surprising. They have raised the bar to a higher level of superlatives with this show. Or should that be the barre? Anyway, they’ve got an extensive tour lined up and I really think you ought to go see them.