Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, May 13
THE founders of BalletBoyz, Royal Ballet alumni Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, have one of the best contact books in the business. A program that offered new choreography by Russell Maliphant and Liam Scarlett stamped itself as a must-see: the work of a contemporary master alongside the UK’s most feted young classical dance-maker. The fact that Scarlett’s piece turned out to be less than riveting was in an odd way a positive experience, at least for me. The 27-year-old is being talked up extensively, particularly in the UK press, so it was good to be able to see for oneself.
In my case I was taking a second look at Scarlett’s work as earlier this year I caught Scarlett’s relatively new commission for New York City Ballet, Acheron. I was not exactly bowled over. In what is becoming quite a Scarlett-fest, I will see his take on Jack the Ripper, Sweet Violets, with the Royal Ballet when I’m in London next week; reviews weren’t entirely positive when it premiered in 2012 although they were supportive. Reviews of this revival, just out, suggest Scarlett has done some work on this one-act narrative piece but that it remains a bit over-stuffed.
Dance writers seem desperate to find a new young choreographer who works in the classical idiom without distorting it in the ways Wayne McGregor and, to a lesser extent, Christopher Wheeldon are seen to do. Scarlett has clearly been nominated as the great hope. (When Sweet Violets premierered it was on a bill with McGregor and Wheeldon, as it happens.)
There is something of a backlash at present against what is seen as extreme manipulations of the body in the work of McGregor and Wheeldon, particularly the manipulation of women. This is a relevant area of interest and concern, although it won’t help the art form or Scarlett if Scarlett is over-praised too early in his career as the one who can save ballet from this direction.
I hope he can take the pressure. Scarlett is being picked up by classical companies around the world and there isn’t a lot of competition in his category. Everything he does is watched very closely.
But back to the BalletBoyz. There was an extra degree of difficulty to add interest in this company as Nunn and Trevitt were exclusively working with men aged between 18 and 25 who come from diverse dance backgrounds or, in the case of one member, no dance training at all. The Talent is about expanding chances for men to dance and sharing the joy as widely as possible.
In Serpent Scarlett went for flowing, introspective movement that incorporates several striking images but offers little sense of purpose. A man lifted out of a tight group then absorbed back into it, a solo figure breaking away from the pack, one still man in profile as the others move – these showed Scarlett’s ability to make a fine moment but overall the piece felt soppy despite the men’s muscularity, aided in this by Max Richter’s soft-centred score that includes the sound of water falling. I thought of gently wafting seaweed rather than sexy, sinuous, dangerous snakes. Not terribly interesting.
I discovered later that there were nine men on stage instead of the 10 mentioned in the pre-show videos because one was ill. The works had been rearranged to go on without him. Were some of the images I admired in the Scarlett the result of an odd number of performers on stage – as in the one still man in profile? I do hope not. It would make Serpent even less interesting.
Maliphant’s Fallen was thrilling, as expected. It uses traces of folk imagery, intimations of martial activity and wonderful lifts and falls that have a hallucinatory quality. Michael Hulls’s lighting was a forceful character in itself and Armand Amar’s rumbling score, while perhaps bringing a Jason Bourne film too frequently to mind, supported the action well.
As Maliphant tactfully put it in a short introductory film, he was working with a group of people with different skill sets. Yes, some of the young men were slightly more polished than others but in Fallen, each immersed himself to the hilt and each looked right at home.