United States Liam Scarlett, Serpent, Russell Maliphant, Fallen, BalletBoyz, Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, 7.11.14-9.11.14 (JRo)
Andrea Carrucciu, Simone Donati, Flavien Esmieu, Marc Galvez, Adam Kirkham, Edward Pearce, Leon Poulton, Matthew Rees, Matthew Sandiford, Bradley Waller
Artistic Directors: Michael Nunn and William Trevitt
Choreography: Liam Scarlett, Serpent ; Russell Maliphant, Fallen
Music: Max Richter, Serpent ; Armand Amar, Fallen
Lighting Design: Michael Hulls
A troupe of all male dancers performing at the highest level, rigorous choreography, spare sets, superb lighting, and textured evocative music – these are the ingredients for a marvelous night of dance, courtesy of choreographers Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant and the BalletBoyz.
An associate company at Sadler’s Wells in London, BalletBoyz was founded by artistic directors Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, former principals of the Royal Ballet. Though the name of the company brings to mind the playfulness of youth, make no mistake, this is dancing of serious intent. Hailing mostly from Italy, France and England the ten dancers who make up the group perform as an organic whole, moving seamlessly through the off kilter lifts, acrobatic sweeps, and heroic postures of the evening’s choreography.
Serpent by Liam Scarlett evokes the fluidity and muscularity of the creature as defined by the serpent of ancient legend and myth. This is the heroic beast of the Greek sculpture, Laocoön and His Sons , not a slithering reptile tied to the earth. And when the dancers pair off, arms meeting arms then deflecting them in quick motions or a body is lifted upside down with legs pointing into air like the blades of a windmill, the effect is that of athletic games of the ancient Olympics. Scarlett’s choreography, as well as Maliphant’s, makes use of the troupe’s versatile dancers who have internalized the postures of the danseur noble and are able to add grace and sophistication to their performances.
Adding to the sculptural effect, the men dance bare chested and wear flesh colored athletic leggings which create a pure body surface to act as a canvas for Michael Hulls’ beautiful lighting. In one breathtaking sequence the white screen that serves as a backdrop for the piece is illuminated with a glowing purple while the dancers are lit in the gold of late afternoon sunlight. Chiaroscuro, the use of light and dark to create volume in painting, abounds throughout the piece as Hull emphasizes the dancers’ forms in a Caravaggio-like tour-de-force.
The Minimalist compositions of Max Richter from his album Memoryhouse range from sounds of dripping water to classic harpsichord, but whatever the instrument or style the music supports and harmonizes with the dance never threatening to overshadow it.
Much of the movement often drops to floor level – not my favorite aspect of so much of contemporary choreography. It often feels like an easy way to create drama through motions of falling, sliding, and writhing on the floor. In the case of Serpent , however, this has a purpose in line with the theme of the piece. Scarlett creates intricate, elegant choreography that keeps you on the edge of your seat, waiting for the next surprise.
The second piece of the evening, Fallen by Russell Maliphant is a work that uses all the skill, inner resources, and grace of the dancers. We are on a bare stage, no backdrop, just the raw walls of the theater. The dancers are clad in vaguely military garb: sleeveless jackets, camouflage style pants. The percussive sounds of composer Armand Amar, with its roots in traditional world music, sets the mood with insistent rhythms and propulsive beats.
What captures me here is how Maliphant creates a human jungle gym of movement, shapes and positions. Again we are aware of sculpture – this time it is the work of Rodin with all its solemn beauty and power. It is a dance of angles and circles, weights and measures, pressure and resistance. Male tribal rituals are evoked as men dance in circles or partners spin each other. Andrea Carrucciu and Leon Poulton dance a martial arts type pas-de-deux with kicks, thrusts and jabs to great effect; but every dancer in the company rises to the same superb level.
If you haven’t seen Maliphant’s Torsion , created in 2002 for artistic directors Nunn and Trevitt, you can find it on YouTube and you are in for a treat. Torsion is a seventeen-minute pas-de-deux of hypnotic beauty performed in a loft-like setting. In Fallen Maliphant uses some of the vocabulary of Torsion enlarged and expanded for the ensemble. For example, there is an oft-repeated sequence of movement for four dancers that is magnetic and almost indescribable. While in constant motion, one dancer, with no volition of his own, is lifted from a horizontal position, anchored to the knee of another, and buttressed on an angle by the arm of another. The choreography is remarkable for its subtly and complexity and the dancers are remarkable for the sheer strength that enables them to perform the steps.
Only two parts of the evening perplex me, but both have nothing to do with the dancing. First is the extended use of rock songs while the audience is sitting and waiting for the show to begin. It has neither a relationship to the dances to come, nor to the subsequent music. The second, shown at the opening of each work, are two short videos of the choreographers talking about the creation of their pieces. Informative though it is, it underestimates the audience’s capacity to understand the work and seems unnecessary, since the dances and the dancers speak so eloquently for themselves.