Every so often, I imagine, all the artistic directors of all the ballet companies in America sit up in bed at 3 a.m. struck by the same revelation: “So that’s why ticket sales are down! Ballet is mysterious, inaccessible, and hideously old-fashioned!” Then they go out and commission a ballet set to rock music. Sometimes the box office perks up obediently; but if it doesn’t, the company has to make more radical changes, like redesigning the subscription brochure to show dancers posing gracefully at construction sites.
None of this, of course, directly attacks the genuine and sometimes impassible distance between ballet and its audience. Dumbing down the repertoire is a self-defeating strategy, and it also misses the point. Ballet is off-putting almost by definition; you can’t get around that. It’s weird and difficult, often it just looks silly, and it appears to live on a planet a million miles from real life. Once you fall in love with it, you’re hooked forever, but if you meet this creature on a blind date, you may well start thinking that the two of you have nothing in common and no conceivable future. That’s precisely where The Ballet Boyz step in. They’re matchmakers between ballet and its shy, suspicious audience, and wherever they go, wedding bells, or at least meaningful relationships, seem to follow.
The Boyz—Michael Nunn and William Trevitt—are a couple of escapees from the Royal Ballet who put their middle names together in 2001 to create a tiny company called George Piper Dances. Early on, they adopted the handle Ballet Boyz as a promotional device, and now they’re stuck with it, although as they told the Los Angeles Times before their first American tour this fall, they’ve always hated the nickname. “Do we look like boyz?” Trevitt asked plaintively. Sure do—but not when they’re dancing, and that’s why the whole shtick works.
What they deploy, instead of rock music or yet another restaging of Carmina Burana, is video. Their program at the Joyce earlier this month featured engagingly ramshackle footage introducing us to the five dancers who now make up the company—their travels, their blithe fooling around, and their rehearsal sessions with different choreographers. Once you’ve seen Nunn and Trevitt stumbling and sweating as they try to work out some particularly awkward lifts, or Trevitt climbing into the bathtub after rehearsal and cheerfully displaying the arm movements he’s just learned, anything remotely intimidating about the ballet world has fallen away like Trevitt’s towel.
Winning though they are, these videos are strictly interludes; they never compete for attention with the live performers. The moment the dancers show up for real, the stage is theirs and the focus is on ballet. What’s more, it’s ballet chosen for the rigor and intensity of the choreography, not the flamboyance of the spectacle. All the dazzle is in the dancing, and thanks to these five—including Oxana Panchenko and newcomers Monica Zamora and Hubert Essakow—the dazzle is abundant.
The program began with William Forsythe’s 1984 Steptext, a wonder of a work, harsh and virtuosic, set to a somewhat deranged version of a Bach violin solo with occasional lonely squawks breaking moments of silence. Pan-chenko ruled here, in a series of duets that displayed her sheer, stripped-down power as she balanced in swift tilts and diagonals, ungiving as an arrow but enjoying the support she commanded at will. Then the whole company appeared in Mesmerics, a new work by Christopher Wheeldon set to music by Philip Glass. Commissioned by the Joyce, this was a beautifully composed ballet emphasizing rich, complex partnering in an atmosphere of solemn mystery. It was haunting—probably too haunting, coming as it did right after the thoroughly haunting Steptext. In fact, by the time the haunting Torsion came along, I would have welcomed a change of mood. But Nunn and Trevitt were fascinating in this expansive duet, made for them by Russell Maliphant and set to a lot of electronic blatting. They wrapped themselves in Maliphant’s movement as if it were an endless coil of cloth, one that let them melt or grapple or build precarious lifts without ever interrupting the flow of the material. Like everything else on the program, this was choreography created not at the periphery but right at the center of dancing itself—the place where mind meets body.
Alas, body alone was in evidence when RoseAnne Spradlin Dance took over the Kitchen earlier this month. Any trace of a mind would have been awfully refreshing to glimpse, especially since I was pretty well out of mine by the time the performance was over. The chief draw was a reprise of Spradlin’s much-praised 2002 work under/world, which won the choreographer and her three dancers Bessie Awards this past September. What on earth could its many fans have seen in this piece? I spent 40 long minutes studying Walter Dundervill, Athena Malloy, and Tasha Taylor in various states of undress as they participated in one torpid activity after another, including investigating each other’s body parts, twirling and changing partners, wearing a jeweled leash, assisting one another through laborious handsprings, and more. The dancers were so impassive they could have been testing carburetors.
Rearrangement, a new work for Dundervill and Malloy, was also on the program and appeared to have been a rearrangement of some of the same material Spradlin used in under/world. It didn’t look any better with clothes on. Spradlin’s movement vocabulary is so limited it might have come right out of choreography class—big strides, wriggles and shudders, sliding around while lying on the floor. At one point, the two dancers sat down and opened big red books, and for an ecstatic moment I thought they were going to read. How wonderful! A dance about reading! But no, they closed the books and threw them to the ground. When the piece ended, a man sitting in my row turned to me. “I drove all the way from Philadelphia for this,” he said in disbelief.