Rough and Sleek Power: Hofesh Shechter Company and Ballet Boyz

The trees are soul-stirring, the lawns satisfyingly green from recent Berkshire rains, the perennial beds outstanding. However, one of the great pleasures in attending performances at Jacob’s Pillow is the chance to see dance companies that either haven’t yet appeared in New York, or haven’t been seen there for a long time.

You almost hate to come into the Ted Shawn Theater when the sun is still slanting down and a wind is stirring. But Brits William Trevitt and Michael Nunn, the founder-directors of Ballet Boyz (initially known as George Piper Dances), have a knack for balancing fresh and breezy with spirit-rocking darkness. These two men, who performed in London’s Royal Ballet and Tokyo’s K-Ballet, discovered early on the pleasures of videomaking, and they’ve raised the art of the hand-held camera to a madcap level. All their performances include videos that wittily defuse the mysteries of dancing; that these two nutty blokes can do it extremely well, while losing their way in strange cities, doing illegal or inappropriate things, and putting themselves down, primes an audience to be pleased. How could you not be entranced by two guys who let you hear a Scottish female voice giving them complicated telephone directions to where they’re supposed to be in Edinburgh, while the camera swoops around, trying to find the landmarks and byways being described?

Ballet Boyz (including a woman—the fantastic Oxana Panchenko) presents works from a variety of choreographers, some of whom are extremely serious about the dark side of life. So the videos also provide a kind of leavening (as well as time for costume changes). Both Russell Maliphant’s Broken Fall and Rafael Bonachela’s EdOx are severe works that eschew camaraderie. In effective atmospheric lighting by Michael Hulls, to Barry Adamson’s compellingly atmospheric score, Trevitt, Nunn, and Panchenko treat the most unusual intersections and manipulations as casually as if they were three kids come together on a rainy day wondering what they can find to do. But there’s no “are we having fun yet?” for these three and no acknowledgement that anything has been achieved. Can Panchenko stay standing on Nunn’s back while he, kneeling, attempts to revolve? Yes, for a short time. Can Trevitt, without warning, toss Panchenko—lying flat in his arms—back over his head, knowing that Nunn, behind him, will catch her? Check. Next? They execute these amazing and stylish things for a long time, quietly and deliberately, as if doing familiar housework. No rivalry, no missteps. When you’re ready for it to end, the men go, and Panchenko fluently presses her thin, limber body into many extreme positions. Alone? Together? Does she notice the difference?

Oxana Panchenko and Tim Morris of Ballet Boyz in Rafael Bonachela's EdOx.
Ben Rudick
Oxana Panchenko and Tim Morris of Ballet Boyz in Rafael Bonachela's EdOx.

Details

Hofesh Shechter Company
Jacobís Pillow, Becket, Massachusetts
July 9 through 13

Ballet Boyz
Jacobís Pillow, Becket, Massachusetts
July 16 through 20

EdOx is an offshoot of AmOx, a work Bonachela choreographed for two women last year. Under its new title, with new music by Ezio Bosso, it’s danced by Panchenko and Tim Morris (the company’s associate producer, making a brief comeback to performing). We’ve just watched a riotous video of Ballet Boyz touring the Jacob’s Pillow campus in an electric cart, accompanied by a music-hall voice singing “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic.” The camera picks up a real bear too, and editing makes him step back and forth in rhythm. And now Panchenko returns to the stage and walks up to Morris, who’s seduced from his fifth-position pose to join her in side-by-side unison and occasional partnering. Bonachela’s choreography involves much more active and sinuous hips and shoulders than Maliphant’s, but the two pieces have a similar overall dynamic: walk somewhere, do something, do something else, walk. Occasionally Panchenko gets to support her partner, including, memorably, grasping his neck as he sits on the floor and slowly pulling him to his feet—with the aid of her counterbalancing arabesque and his cooperation.

Liv Lorent’s Propeller, set to gentle pre-existing music by Bosso and Vivaldi, hints more at what it might mean for two people to dance together. For a while, Nunn and Panchenko move sideways, in slow, deep lunges, he behind her, keeping his cheek pressed to her shoulder. Sometimes he lifts her in a standing position, as if she were a doll without joints—ostensibly by placing a hand on either side of her head. Yet at one point, she struggles out of an attempt on his part to hoist her again (although she later allows him to do a headstand on her belly). I get the feeling that no choreographer can avoid being seduced by Panchenko’s uncanny flexibility and daring. It’s almost disappointing when Nunn lifts her overhead in one of those bravura Russian stunts.

Finally, in this intriguing, split-personality program, we get to see Trevitt and Nunn release their inner rowdiness onstage. Craig Revel Horwood, who choreographed Yumba vs. Nonino for them, is better known as a choreographer of musicals and a judge on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. To Osvaldo Pugliese’s “La Yumba” and Astor Piazzola’s “Adios Nonino,” the two men, wearing their black jackets over not-tucked-in shirts, attempt a reluctant, often contentious spate of tangoing. Lighting designer Natasha Chivers makes the backdrop change—ta-da!—from red to blue to lavender and back to red. We get what we might expect—the men stalking around each other, flipping their feet perilously between each other’s legs while in ballroom-dance position. But in this neatly constructed number, we also get two splendid dancers who are also endearing performers who’re never without ideas. Trevitt—he of the long, knife-slim legs—is more macho hauteur. Nunn gets sucked back into each hold with an expression that says in a very understated way, “What am I doing here with you?”—and by you, he means not only his partner and the audience but the world at large.

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