Theater archives

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?

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.

The Hofesh Shechter Company presents a very different image of dancerly prowess. Ever felt like knocking your troubles out? Down for the count and beyond? I’m not talking about slash and flail; I’m thinking clear, direct, strong, relieving punches. It’s too bad one can’t just hire this group and turn the performers loose on any lurking problems. They beat the surrounding air into submission more imaginatively than any dancers I can think of.

That’s not their main ambition, of course. Artistic director-choreographer-composer Shechter—now making waves in England—was raised in Israel, where he danced for a time with the Batsheva Dance Company under the leadership of Ohad Naharin. You can sense in his choreographic choices—as you can in Naharin’s—the shadowy impact of the compulsory military duty that confronts all young Israelis. Especially in Shechter’s gripping, gut-busting Uprising (2006), immaculate spatial patterns insinuate images of precision drills that form out of nowhere, dissolve, and re-form. When the seven powerful and very individual men in workaday clothes (including Shechter) leave off their concerted actions, it’s to pause or brood for a while, to writhe on the floor, to make casual gestures to one another, to grapple one-on-one, and to catch, embrace, or comfort a comrade. If disintegration threatens, one of the men will yell, and the others will again fall in.

The ambiance of Uprising is not unfamiliar in today’s dance world. High at the back of the stage, a row of overhead lights intermittently beams toward us across a dark, smoke-filled space. At Jacob’s Pillow, the Ted Shawn Theatre’s old wooden barn walls add a rough-hewn severity to the piece. Shechter’s electronic score pounds and roars and throbs mercilessly, except when it cuts out entirely for seconds. The dancing too is pounding and earthy. These guys like to keep their knees bent and their feet apart. In this squad, oblique is not an influential adjective.

What’s memorable about the movement in Uprising are the animal images—big birds running, monkeys swinging along. One by one or in pairs, men lope across the stage in a squat, using one hand to help propel themselves along. Shechter’s strength as a choreographer also lies in his sense of shifting architecture—the way his sharp-edged images of the human body, working at a high level of vigor, combine, split apart, and counterpoint one another. He doesn’t really build these striking images toward a climax, however. It’s a surprise when one man suddenly vaults up the hill created by his clustered colleagues and waves a T-shirt as a red flag.

In Your Rooms (2007) is also fierce. This time, five women join all the men but Shechter. Now five musicians play stringed instruments and percussion along with a soundtrack that samples Sigur Ros and features ramblings about chaos and order by a male voice (this score is also by Shechter). Sitting on a platform high on the back wall, the musical ensemble looks, in Lee Curran’s dark glow of light, as if it were suspended. The scene below—except for a dire, scrabbling solo by Yen Ching Lin—seems to be less about chaos than about order glimpsed only in discrete fragments. We see fraught, or potentially fraught, encounters that look as if they’ve been severed in chunks from some larger reality we can only guess at. Pumping, thrusting, thrashing, falling, slipping in and out of embraces, the dancers rush into windows of light and dash away again.

Here, too, Shechter doesn’t show development. Close to the end, a man and woman kiss, and suddenly that seems significant, but his skill is for creating exciting building blocks of movement and rearranging and juxtaposing them in expressive ways. You yearn to understand what holds the pieces together, even as you’re gripped by the ordeals of these terrific performers.