TWO shows next week are taking an unashamedly populist approach to contemporary dance – with the help of good-looking boys and a bit of ‘artetainment’, writes Kelly Apter
Friendships forged as teenagers aren’t necessarily built to last. But when you’ve got a shared vision as singular as that of Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, it helps with the bonding process. Back in the 1980s, when both men were training at the Royal Ballet School, all they wanted was to dance. These days, with their names above the company door, rather than scribbled inside a ballet shoe, their vision is bigger.
Ever since they burst onto Channel 4 in 1999, with their behind-the-scenes look at life at the Royal Ballet, Nunn and Trevitt have been the accessible face of dance – ballet initially, but soon they worked their magic on contemporary dance, too. Thirteen years after the BalletBoyz company was born, the duo may have given up performing themselves, but the new recruits dancing in their place are pulling in the crowds.
“Since the earliest days of starting our own company, we wanted as many people as possible to come and see our shows,” says Trevitt, “and not have anything that’s going to put them off. It’s already off-putting to see contemporary dance – there are only a certain amount of people who will ever go and see it – so we try to find ways to make people feel welcome and encouraged.”
Publicity photos used to promote the show certainly don’t fall into the “off-putting” category. Having recruited ten male dancers aged 21-26, all of whom are athletic, muscular and not shy about showing it off, there’s no shortage of poster boys in the new-look BalletBoyz.
“It doesn’t matter to me how people get into the theatre, so long as they get there,” says Trevitt. “So if we find ways to make it more mainstream or commercial in terms of marketing the show, that doesn’t bother me at all. Because we’re still trying to present the very best in choreography, the most interesting collaborations and excellent dancers.”
All of which can be seen in their latest tour, The Talent 2013. A double bill of diverse contemporary dance, underpinned by a strong classical ballet technique, the show highlights the strength, grace, physicality and sensitivity the dancers have to offer. Muscles may glisten in the spotlights, tattoos may be in abundance, but this is no machismo roadshow. Each and every one of the dancers was chosen because they had the capacity to engage.
“They need to have charisma,” says Trevitt, who recently auditioned 500 young hopefuls for just five places. “We wanted to find dancers you can’t take your eyes off. Because if we wanted to watch them in the audition, then those are the dancers people are going to watch when they’re on stage as well.”
Knowing who to use to perform the work is only half the challenge. Trevitt and Nunn also need to be astute commissioners and, throughout the company’s history, choosing choreographers to make work as captivating as the dancers has never been a problem. This time around, they picked fellow Royal Ballet School alumni Liam Scarlett and Russell Maliphant.
Known for his ability to create beautiful pas de deux, Scarlett was an interesting choice for the BalletBoyz. Set to emotive music by composer Max Richter, Serpent takes Scarlett’s partnering technique in a whole new direction.
“We’d seen a fair bit of Liam’s work and knew how well he handled a man and a woman in a duet,” says Trevitt. “But we asked him to just ignore the fact he was now working with two men, and create something that he would anyway. And he did exactly that – the partnering is really quite extraordinary.”
Watching the dancers lift each other into the air, it’s hard to disagree. Somehow, Scarlett has managed to make it look powerful and elegant at the same time. There is no suggestion of a storyline, just masterful movement. The ability to lift each other with such ease didn’t come overnight, however.
“It takes a while for the dancers to build up the strength,” explains Trevitt, “but they do that as they go along. All of them knew when they joined our company, that partnering with another man was something that would definitely be required of them. It’s beautiful to see a woman held high in the sky, but it’s also very impressive to see a man do the same thing.”
Maliphant’s work, Fallen, is equally challenging for the dancers, in both the strength and trust required. Climbing up onto each other’s legs and shoulders, dancers fall back into space, knowing another dancer will be there to catch them. Or so they hope. With Maliphant’s penchant for changing the work daily during the rehearsal period, there’s no room for a lapse in concentration.
“Everyone had to be really switched on,” says Trevitt. “So it was important that they had good breaks while they were working, because you can’t get away with not giving all of your attention, all of the time.”
If it sounds like Trevitt and Nunn were pretty hands-on during rehearsals, that’s because they were. Many artistic directors will commission a choreographer then, apart from the odd viewing, turn up at the dress rehearsal to see what they’ve got. Not Trevitt and Nunn.
“We’re way too controlling for that,” says Trevitt with a laugh. “We watch lots of rehearsals and ask them to explore this or that a little bit more. Because only Michael and I have an overarching view of the whole show – the choreographers are focussing on their particular element.
“We’ve spent 13 years building up this company, building a reputation and all the other things that go with it. It means a huge amount to us, and we’re can’t bear to see anything that isn’t as close to perfection as it’s possible to be.”
• BalletBoyz, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 18 February; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 20 February. www.balletboyz.com