Theater archives

Breaking the Next Wave


There’s no “George Piper” in George Piper Dances, the five-person, took-London-by-storm company run by former Royal Ballet dancers Michael Nunn (middle name George) and William Trevitt (middle name Piper). But the title is apt. The two are equally serious about wanting to acquire edgy work and about demystifying it. Choreographers such as Akram Khan, William Forsythe, and Christopher Wheeldon are glad to provide dances; and as the “Ballet Boyz”—an identity given them by the British TV channel that aired three installments of their impudent video diaries—Nunn and Trevitt have developed a strategy to warm audiences up.

Onstage, they’re elegant, impeccably trained. But everyone loves princes who are ordinary hardworking blokes in disguise, especially irreverent wits perhaps reared on Monty Python. Right after they’ve slashed through William Forsythe’s heated-steel Steptext, they treat us to a fast-bits video in which they talk about the Joyce Theater, check out New York, clown in a Frankfurt hotel room, rehearse with Forsythe, interview Wheeldon, and generally piss around and make you want to have a beer with them.

The three pieces the company brought to the U.S. suggest that Dunn and Trevitt are drawn to hard-edged works that, like ballet, show off precision and clean lines, no matter how distorted those lines may be, no matter how arrested the flow. The gleaming assertions of the 1984 Steptext are broken by matter-of-fact walks onto and off the stage just as the accompanying Bach chaconne jolts in and out. Hubert Essakow, the first dancer to run through some thematic material—feet widely planted, close to the edge of the stage, does so while the house lights are still on. Nunn and Monica Zamora work into the Forsythian complications of their duet—apparent antagonism played against actual cooperation—as if they’d just met on their way home. On the other hand, in the stunning display of lifts that constitutes Russell Maliphant’s 2002 Torsion, Nunn and Trevitt—bathed in Michael Hull’s atmospheric lighting and menaced by Richard English’s rumbling, crashing city-traffic sounds—smooth away images of competition (pulling against each other) and make acts such as one man aiming the other like a projectile look liquid and almost effortless. Trevitt traces a circle, spinning in a squat as if winding silk on a spool.

Wheeldon’s Mesmerics, commissioned by the Joyce, is more nuanced than the other two pieces. As usual, the choreographer makes audiences aware of compositional strategies without drying out the ballet. Even having a solitary man copy the moves of the male half of a couple seems natural, possibly revealing, rather than simply clever. To capture the ongoing quality of various selections of Philip Glass’s music, Wheeldon feeds the three men, Zamora, and Oxana Panchenko in and out, speeding or slowing the rate of change without stopping the flow. This time he avoids hand gestures that announce all too trickily, “This is modern ballet,” and lets his inventiveness with the classical vocabulary say it all.

At least twice before, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has followed a dramatic piece with a “pure” one distilled from it. The feelings the 2001 Rain stir up may be a residue of the brilliantly thoughtful Belgian choreographer’s In Real Time (not seen in New York).

Rain is her sixth work grounded in (or involving) music by Steve Reich, to which she shows an uncanny sensitivity. In Reich’s thrilling Music for 18 Musicians, sustained melodic phrases (clarinets, violin, voices) are layered over primarily rhythmic ones (marimbas, xylophones, pianos, maracas, etc.). Rhythmic alterations in the constant pulse, applied to a repeating melodic phrase, subtly transform it. Like the music, the dancing never stops, although the seven women and three men in De Keersmaeker’s company, Rosas, occasionally do, and running is a frequent motif. The same phrases keep cropping up, varied in terms of sequence, rhythm, dynamics, and personnel.

The stage picture designed by Jan Versweyveld is stunning, with the musicians dimly visible behind a semicircular curtain of ropes suspended from a huge hoop overhead. Brushed by the dancers, the ropes act like wind-lashed rain. The lights flash subtly, burn coolly, and suddenly flood the stage with pink. Bit by bit, selected items of Dries Van Noten’s soft beige costumes are exchanged for others in pink, then fuchsia; a few return beyond beige to sparkling white at the end.

Rain intertwines two ideas. One is that of water: dancing that swells, eddies, forms pools and whirlpools, foams up against obstacles, breaks free, rushes along. Dancers sometimes cross the stage in a tidal line that drops people in its wake or passes over and around them. They tilt to the side as if testing a current before plunging into it. One performer lifted by a group seems to bubble up from a confluence of forces. And many of these images appear simultaneously in different places onstage. There are no severe storms, only bursts of energy.

The other dominant image is playful, almost childlike—the movement springy, natural-looking, with free-swinging arms and loosely pointed feet. Running side by side or veering, brought together by their phrases, dancers may exchange smiles or friendly touches. Often those walking or running around the perimeter watch soloists as if the activity were a game they were waiting to enter.

For all its delicacy, however, De Keersmaeker’s choreography, like Reich’s music, breathes as deeply as the ocean.