Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; January 14, 2014

David Mead

BalletBoyz in 'Young Men'. Photo © George Piper

BalletBoyz in ‘Young Men’.
Photo © George Piper

It was only in 2010 that the first edition of theTalent hit the stage. The BalletBoyz, former Royal Ballet dancers William Trevitt and Michael Nunn selected eight male dancers from different backgrounds with the idea of turning them into a company. Four years on, “Young Men” shows just how far they have come.

Spanish choreographer Iván Pérez may have taken the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I as his starting point, but although scenes such as ‘Gag, Gas, Gas’ sit firmly in that time, in general “Young Men” has a timeless feel, a sense helped cleverly by Carlijn Petermeijer’s neutral costumes. It’s also far from some sort of danced documentary. War may be the theme, and soldiering and soldiers’ experiences certainly sit at the heart of the piece, but the Pérez and the dancers take more of a semi-abstract approach as they delve into human experiences before, during and after battle, and the consequences of conflict.

Each of the ten scenes considers a particular aspect of conflict. It starts at the end, as it were, with ‘Aftermath of War’. Lit beautifully by Jackie Shemesh (as indeed is the whole piece), it sees the combatants caressing and comforting each other, and being comforted by one of two women (her crisp white blouse in stark contrast to the dark costumes of the men) who have joined the company on this occasion. It is quite beautiful, heartfelt, and is matched perfectly by Keaton Henson’s score. There is a great deal of using each other for support, of cradling one another as they gently fall to the floor before being helped up again. But most impressive is the palpable sense of psychological pain, of inner turmoil, illustrated by their seeming to look through each other rather than at each other.

It’s a mood that reappears again and again as subsequent scenes consider other aspects of war: training, shell shock, gas attacks, nightmares and, finally, ‘Homecoming’. Almost all the sections feature all eleven men, the two women putting in more occasional appearances. Women, it should be remembered did reach the front line in the Great War and other conflicts, so their presence is most definitely apposite.

The dance is athletic and physical. Some of the floor-based sequences in which bodies slide and tumble across the stage, and limbs make sweeping arcs through the air, are dramatic. The cast are all excellent, fully-committed the whole time. Even so, after a while the mind starts to wander as material and structure are repeated. More than once there’s a sense of having been here before; sometimes several times before. Most sections also feature all the men, frequently in building ensemble sequences.

BalletBoyz in 'Young Men'. Photo © George Piper

BalletBoyz in ‘Young Men’.
Photo © George Piper

Maybe war, in reality, is all pretty much of a, albeit unpleasant, muchness. And in some ways there probably is a very fine dividing line between being assaulted physically by the enemy and psychologically by one’s experiences. The reliance on the ensemble and unison certainly emphasises the importance of the unit rather than the individual, but as remarkably well as the cast dance as one, variation does create interest, and a silent hurrah greeted those too few moments where the audience could get up close with individuals; the best of these being a startlingly potent portrayal of a victim of shell-shock.

Things sometimes seemed unnecessarily softened too; like someone had taken an iron and tried to flatten out the rises and falls. ‘Training of a Soldier’ features lots of references to drill and exercises, but never achieves the appropriate mood or sense. ‘Gag, Gas, Gas’ opens with great urgency in the music and the dance, but soon relapses and looks much like what is around it.

Rather appropriately, the final ‘Homecoming’ has a mixed mood. As the men rush continually from the darkness and leap, it seems as if they are jumping for joy. But the nature of it, and the music, suggests there’s a madness there. Yes, they are happy that it’s over, but what has it done to them? It is, however, a scene that while initially powerful, long outstays its welcome. And be warned! Henson’s relentless music is ramped up to a painful level here – out Hofesh-ing Hofesh by some way.

As has also been Shechter’s preference, the strings-heavy music is played live, the excellent 14-strong band on stage but secreted away behind a screen which, intentionally or not, seems to serve as trench walls, building walls and psychological walls at different times.

Although “Young Men” has issues, and the fact that it doesn’t hit as hard as a work on the subject of the trials and traumas of war maybe should, it’s another impressive step on the Boyz and their still young company’s path. It’s definitely worth seeing.