Review of BalletBoyz Them/Us

Last night I was fortunate enough to attend the BalletBoyz West End debut with the double bill Them/Us at the Vaudeville Theatre. I’d seen and heard a lot about the small company, including some of their programmes on Sky Arts a few years ago, but hadn’t yet had the opportunity to watch them in performance.

Image by George Piper

This programme was conceived with Us, which was originally a duet choreographed for two members of the company by Christopher Wheeldon (who incidentally seems to be popping up all over the city this week, with ENB’s Cinderella in-the-round also opening, and San Francisco Ballet performing another of his works at Sadler’s Wells). The piece was expanded to include the entire company and apparently reveal more of the story for the purpose of this production. To accompany this, BalletBoyz have created a piece titled Them, very unusual in that it was not created by a single choreographer, but was choreographed by all of the dancers involved. As a dance student, I am used to working in this way, however it is something that I feel very rarely makes it to the professional stage, so I was intrigued to see what they had created through this process.

Image by George Piper

The evening opened with Them. Before the piece began, we were shown a short film introducing the concept and showing some of the process. This was a perfect introduction to the piece and the dancers’ personalities, which had all the audience chuckling appreciatively. As the work then opened, it featured a totally bare stage, without so much as backdrop or tabs, stripped right to the radiator and fire alarm visible on the back wall. It gave the impression of working in the studio, which was fitting because to me, this piece is all about the process. It reminded me of that kind of exam question you would get in school- show your working. If I hadn’t read the programme or seen the introductory film, I ought to have guessed that this piece was created by the dancers rather than a star choreographer because there was a distinct lack of bare feet and unflattering flesh-coloured unitards (dancers will KNOW the struggle), instead comprising brightly coloured trackies straight out of 1992 and socks, a familiar uniform to anyone who has taken an open contemporary dance class in London, here designed by Katherine Watt.

Image by Goerge Piper

What stood out for me in the first piece was the extremely fluid contact work. The dancers poured into one another, going to the floor and back up again, shifting and changing shape and weight without any noticeable transitions, like the viscous blobs rising and falling in a lava lamp. That sort of easy grace masks immense strength, and the mark of dancers who trust and understand one another completely. Key to the piece was a large frame which the dancers climbed on, swung from, and moved around the stage, a prop which seemed to inspire endless creativity. Some of the interactions with this frame were fearlessly athletic, but they looked effortless.

Image by George Piper

I feel that this entire piece had the enchanting weirdness that only ensues when a group of dancers is left to their own devices. Each dancer’s personality was able to shine through, and I got the impression that they all bring a uniqueness to this company and this piece. The score, by Charlotte Harding, felt inconsistent to me, but perhaps this is a mark of the creative process, a reflection of so many influences going into one work. Overall, I think that this work was a triumph, and I think that this type of creative process deserves a more highly-regarded place on the professional stage. By the interval, I was very impressed and very excited.

I am a self-confessed Wheeldon fangirl. I love his work, and it’s the sort of work that I would love to dance and can see myself creating one day. I never got over the excitement of The Winter’s Tale at The Royal Ballet last year, and I was very eager to see how he created work on a contemporary company.

Now, when I first watched this piece, I hadn’t realised that the first part of it was a later addition. However, I did write in my notes that the first 5-10 minutes did nothing to advance the work, and I wrote afterwards that the duet was so good that it could, and maybe should, be a stand-alone piece. I stand by that observation, and I think it is notable that I could see a big difference in quality between the parts of the piece without realising that it was an expansion of the duet. The first part featured undoubtedly beautiful dancing, but no real emotion, with costumes that looked like concentration camp uniforms. I didn’t know what sort of story was being told at that point, but it seemed like the start of a gritty piece narrating a post-apocalyptic utilitarian society. It was disappointing. I know a piece isn’t drawing me in properly when I’m thinking more about the size of the head of the person sat in front of me than what’s happening on stage (spoiler: it was really big).

Image by George Piper

However, the second part of this piece was so good, it erased the peculiar first section from my mind completely (the uninspiring grey smock costumes were shed also, in place of trousers with a flowing white shirt which complemented the movement nicely, until the shirts, too were discarded). I even stopped noticing the large headed gentleman in front. Shown alone, this creation would be not far short of a work of genius. The score by Keaton Henson is beautiful. The piece starts to get really good with a solo in the middle, in which the dancer brought a strong sense of stage presence that I didn’t realise had been missing up to that point. Suddenly the slightly bland atmosphere of the first section is pierced by movement that is imbibed with emotion. Then, the duet, danced by Bradley Waller and Harry Price, showed male partnering at its very best.

Image by George Piper

I was worried that Wheeldon may have shied away from making the piece ‘too gay’ because it was mentioned in the film clip at the beginning that he wasn’t sure what kind of male relationship this was, whether it was sexual, romantic, or a deep friendship (I felt the duet managed to reflect all of these qualities). I have found in past experience that male partnering tends to display stunning strength but can lack tenderness. However this piece was choreographed and danced beautifully. Yes, there is strength, and feats of incredible skill. Nevertheless, it is close, and tender. Each time the dancers make contact, it is deliberate and affectionate. The touching of their hands sends a ripple through their bodies which aptly describes the feeling of electricity that comes with physical contact in a new love. The duet is elegant, poignant, and sublime. I think that expanding it was a disservice to the piece, and perhaps a separate short work would have complemented the programme better.

Image by George Piper

Overall, I think that the evening was a triumph, and this company deserves every success in this coming run of performances. This programme comes across as a labour of love, the work of a family. Every member of this company brings creativity, finely honed skill, strength, vitality and personal flair to these works, and it’s displayed in a way that you don’t quite see with any other company. It’s taken me some time to get around to watching a performance in person, but now that I have, I’ll be keenly awaiting their next venture!

Get your tickets for Them/Us by clicking HERE.

Many thanks to The Corner Shop PR for sending me along.

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