One hundred years on from the start of World War One, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt (co-founders and Artistic Directors of BalletBoyz) collaborated with contemporary choreographer Iván Pérez and composer Keaton Henson to create Young Men. A full-length dance production, it premièred at Sadler’s Wells in January of this year and is back due to popular demand. Inspired not simply by the war itself, each dance piece draws upon the universality of the soldiers’ experiences as discovered in letters sent home to their loved ones.
As ever with the BalletBoyz this show is hard-hitting, packing emotion and intensity into several shorter dance pieces that bring out the individual characters in the dancers themselves. Each of the men is a fighter with a different personality and yet the overall impression is that of a collective, a regiment, a brotherhood. There is a clear theme here – a repetitive thread that enters the subconscious like the hook to a catchy pop song. It can be seen in the individual choreography, with low, powerful movements that span across the pieces; in the synchronicity of the precise group movements; and in the composition, with rich, heavy strings and repetitive piano motifs that return as a unifying factor throughout the pieces. In some ways it makes the first half seem a little monotonous – one can almost be excused for expecting there to be some variety. But this comes from the stories that are told, the characters portrayed and the subtle changes in Jackie Shamesh’s lighting design. The dancers perform behind a veil, on an army camp (complete with stone parade ground), in a wood and locked in a metallic cell – all within the first half.
The pieces themselves are all taken from different aspects of the military psyche. In a first for BalletBoyz, the inclusion of two female dancers introduces a new dimension to the work: ‘Aftermath of War’ sees the dancer downstage, yearning for those (seen repeatedly dying upstage) who have left and wondering whether they will return again. Another female appears in ‘Desperate Disguise’, wandering through a wood of lost souls as she desperately searches for the memory of one individual. She dances briefly with each of the men, afraid to accept their fates whilst not wanting to forget their existence. When she finds her beloved, they dare not break eye contact for fear of the dream dissolving away (a device typical of Pérez’s compositional style).
Despite this only being a short show versus a more traditional ballet, the incorporation of an interval becomes apparent on watching the second half. Suddenly there is a change of pace, a sense of urgency that is endlessly drummed through the performers as they march on in ‘Leap of Faith’. The energy feels different, more aggressive; it manifests itself in a single soldier’s interaction with his brothers in ‘Lonesome Dark’ and explodes in ‘Battlefield Landscape’. This penultimate piece sees some inspiring lighting cues that throw new perspective on the performers: they dive, leap and push themselves to exhaustion on a floor covered in black sand. Side lighting followed swiftly by staggered spotlights disorientates everyone as the chromatic orchestration builds. The climax sees the dancers in a line down stage, panting hard as they stand at ease over the swirled sand and under spotlights that accentuate their exertion.
The whole production has the raw energy and expressive form that is now expected of BalletBoyz. But unlike previous productions, this is more contemporary in its execution – it contains less classical ballet technique thanks to Pérez’s choreography. The narrative is strong, multi-layered and emotional, so it’s not difficult to see why this show is currently enjoying a return run at Sadler’s Wells. The next phase is the making of a feature-length film, which when shot on location in northern France will add even more layering to this already rich and powerful endeavour.
Young Men is playing at Sadler’s Wells until 10 October. For more information and tickets, see the Sadler’s Wells website. Photo: Panaylotis Sinnos.