BalletBoyz review: Male dance troupe from London brings Portland audience to its feet

The Oregonian

By Celina Russell 

The applause barely ceased for intermission on a vividly blustery Tuesday at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. It revived halfway through the second piece by UK dance troupe BalletBoyz, and by the end the house was on its feet with abandon.

The "boyz," a group of men with no principal dancers, now 10 strong, present a working challenge for their guest choreographers in a discipline that spotlights women. On a brief North American tour (presented in Portland by White Bird) before returning to Europe and their home stage in London, the company performed two pieces by choreographers who took the challenge in very different directions.

Liam Scarlett, whose new ballets premiered at the Royal Ballet in London this week and at Lincoln Center in September, coaxed a lyrical beauty out of every movement in "Serpent," while Russell Maliphant, a veteran artist whose company is nearing its 20th anniversary, expanded on the repetition and cruelty apparent in men's games with "Fallen."

Despite the crowd's enthusiasm, "Fallen" was not altogether easy to watch. Beginning and ending with the men hopping and tumbling low to the ground in an endless circle, like rusted bolts falling off a speeding truck and rolling unimpeded into a barren desert, the piece was accompanied by a driving drum and bass track that lent the company an air of stunt performers in an action movie, or, hemmed in as they were with smoke and flares of green light, in a circus.

Effective as the movements were in pantomiming the slow cranking of industrial machinery, hand-to-hand combat, and the combination of aggression, obedience and trust in military unions, the music made me feel as if I should be running away.

Much easier to fall in love with was "Serpent." Like Maliphant's arrangements in "Fallen," Scarlett asks the dancers to work mainly as a unit, with only a few moments for solos, and duets that move seamlessly in and out of the crowd. But oh, those moments! Scarlett's artistry is clear in the transitions: a pause in the music when the performers, now the sole focus of attention, keep moving; a flare of leg leading to shoulder from one dancer in front to distract as the rest move into position for a complicated grouping; a single hand, pulling at ankle.

Here the serpent is literal — we see the dancers first coiled on the floor, then flickering one arm before rising to undulate together — and abstracted, as a language for dance that prevents the men from using their arms and legs too heavily. It is the lightness of these movements that open the space for freedom. Running and leaping into lifts (!) and stretching their bare chests open in the air, the men seem to glide with a magical fluidity matched only by the understated soundtrack of rain droplets, strings, and chamber chords by Max Richter and the spectacularly thoughtful lighting choices by Michael Hull.

It is worth saying that until you've seen it live on a stage, it's impossible to know what a thing of beauty Michael Hull's work is. In "Serpent" the backgrounds are saturated with colors complementing the highlights on each dancer's lines. A soft vivid blue behind the dancer's muscles, wrapped in purple, makes them appear to vibrate ever so slightly. Later the background changes, first to the color of dust, then orange, with the bodies in front a raw peach. In "Fallen," the light is costume designer too. Wearing plain khakis and charcoal-colored shirts, the dancers seem covered in camouflage as fingers of absinthe green illuminate the stage.

The idea behind the Boyz, according to founders Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, is to bring dance appreciation and education to a wider audience, but the pieces left as much to think about as they did to cheer for. Questions of what is pleasurable in dance and what assumptions we make watching human bodies move together, about the subject matter movement is capable of portraying all sprang to mind by the end of the show, though the most difficult questions dissipated quickly under Portland's roar of approval.