Unlike most companies, George Piper Dances had the advantage of being conceived almost fully formed. Former Royal Ballet dancers Michael Nunn and William Trevitt already had the professional training, acclaim and contacts in the dance world, and they gained a life-giving boost by the ‘Ballet Boyz’ Channel 4 series which preceded their first show.
And now they are five, with a well-established identity: modern ballet programmes of commissioned pieces, spliced with filmed interludes of blokeish banter. Last year’s experiment – the self-choreographed Naked – met with lukewarm response, and their new show ‘Encore’ celebrates the birthday by a partial return to the repertory format.
Yet it also looks to new ground: the Boyz look back and they look around. Opening the programme is On Classicism, William Tuckett’s 1987 work made for Trevitt and Darcey Bussell when all three were still at the Royal Ballet School. It’s prefaced by some foggy film footage of the original, with Ninette de Valois, sounding rather like the Queen, declaring the work ‘quite lovely’. And so it is. To a sequence of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Trevitt and regular company dancer Oxana Panchenko transport us back to fresh student days. With duets, with male and female variations, with adage and allegro, the decorous choreography elegantly demonstrates the classical style, lightly peppered with ‘modern’ inflections (parallel positions, flexed feet). Sweet, but insubstantial.
With the slenderest, least ostentatious of means, Lorent intimates a tender world of compromised aspirations and submerged desires
On the following snippet of film, the dancers explain that they were new to Liv Lorent’s creative process (she gave the ideas, direction and shaping, but they had to come up with the movement), and it’s clear that everyone had a difficult time. But Propeller, a duet for Nunn and Panchenko with live music that combines Vivaldi with Ezio Bosso’s yearningly unsettled string composition, turned out to be the best piece of the evening. On a shadowy stage, Panchenko appears almost floating as she sways back and forward. The lights sharpen to reveal Nunn supporting her, locking her in a lullaby embrace. The piece turns on the woman’s feelings: sometimes she’s gently lifted, transported by her partner; at others, she’s held back, blocked, or brought to earth. Towards the end Nunn leans heavily against Panchenko, and she twists him around like a stiff, awkward cog before she’s lifted up again, reaching into the air as if for a dream. With the slenderest, least ostentatious of means, Lorent intimates a tender world of compromised aspirations and submerged desires.
Charles Linehan’s Jjanke is a gem of a work, if rather too long. Nunn and Trevitt’s folky-balletic character dance is given a sardonic spin by Linehan’s characteristically low-key and intelligent craftsmanship. On a stage hung with mists, Nunn and Trevitt strut their mazurkas and csardas, locking in and out of little, stiff-armed knots, finishing their phrases with self-important flourishes. Sandwiched between two recordings of East European folk song, the central section has live music played by Bratko Bibic, hunched over his accordion in one downstage corner. The effect is wryly humorous, as if Linehan is very gently taking the piss: two deadpan guys vaguely trying to upstage each other with their kneeling pirouettes and swaggery gestures while some codger in the corner wheezes out his music and pretty much ignores them.
The finale is preceded by a filmed conversation about arts, celebrity, popularity and accessibility. The ‘debate’ namechecks celebrities and is delivered in populist, jokey style – but it’s actually rather flimsy. At least that’s appropriate for Rafael Bonachela’s Mandox Bandox, a choreographic bit of instant gratification that’s populist, accessible and well, forgettable. Still, with its hyperextended, machine-like modern ballet style, it suits the three dancers very well. There’s a portentous dramatic subtext as the two guys compete with each other over the girl. Andy Cowton’s thumping electronic score racks up the tension, and Natasha Chivers’ slick neon lighting design hits the beat. It’s very much in a certain current style of modern ballet which presents the dancers as superhumans and seeks more to impress than to engage its audience. And it very impressive – and very wearing.
‘Encore’ finishes with an encore: the dancers get a drum kit and guitars and play ‘You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ by the Arctic Monkeys. And they did, indeed, always look good on the dancefloor. But the numbers themselves were very mixed. The Boyz were on familiar ground at the beginning and end, but those middle pieces were both less secure and more interesting – as if the Boyz were trying out some new, slightly awkward-fitting clothes. And that’s fine. They’ll grow. They’re only five.