For an art form that once boldly set out to question conventional divisions of gender, ballet now seems to be retreating towards the butch – ironically, just as the rest of the world is moving obsessively to the femme.
Scroll back a century or so and Nijinsky cross-dressed at masked balls, danced on pointe and covered himself in petals as le spectre de la rose; in Les Biches, his sister Nijinska shamelessly choreographed all manner of sexual indeterminacy and suggested that girls could also be boys. Then came the Carry On stereotype of limp-wristed ephebes in pink tights with an ominous bulge – every mother’s nightmare in the homophobic post-war era, and perhaps still a source of psychotic contempt among certain sections of society.
But all that is in marked decline: today men who dance spend more time pumping iron than they do inhaling the scent of lilies. And while the dwindling of the stigma is welcome, perhaps something of value has been lost, or is in danger of being devalued – an ambiguity of manner, an embrace of the feminine, a grace and delicacy of gesture that goes beyond the merely dainty.
Leading the field here are the BalletBoyz, a troupe established by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt in 2000. Their accent is firmly on the exploration of masculinity: occasionally a female dancer has been imported, but their USP is that of being a crack gang of West Side Story streetwise guys, sporty lads in sweatshirts with Olympian physiques competing in feats of exotic athleticism rather than striking effetely narcissistic poses.
BalletBoyz’s current programme, touring nationally until mid-May, has been rolled over from a project aborted by the pandemic. Illuminated by short introductory films made in rehearsal, it packs a terrific punch – and all the more so, because Nunn and Trevitt have commissioned two women choreographers who haven’t been content to let muscles flex and testosterone pulse: the tonality of both their 30-minute works is subtly inflected.
In Xie Xin’s abstract Ripple, the dancers billow in loose grey trousers and blouses – a constant current running between them, sometimes in gently intimate proximity, sometimes sparkily like electricity, sometimes with the endless anonymous ebb and flow of ocean waves. Xie is based in Shanghai and some of the rituals of tai chi have seeped through here; the effect is hypnotic.
Fired up by Cassie Kinoshi’s funky score and inspired by the poetry of Kae Tempest, Maxine Doyle’s quirkier Bradley 4:18might be a study in multiple personality disorder: six men in suits present six different sets of psychological characteristics, both playful and troubled. It’s early in the morning and they feel exposed. They mirror each other anxiously and grapple in writhings that evoke the paintings of Francis Bacon, though there is no erotic undertow to their contact. It may be no fun being locked into a man’s world, but the six BalletBoyz dance the hell out of it all.
At the Royal Opera House, the Royal Ballet breaks off from a long run of Swan Lake with a rather monochrome triple bill including revivals of Crystal Pite’s lugubrious Solo Echo and Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à grande vitesse, a train journey that runs out of steam after its gorgeous opening duet, sensually realised on this occasion by Gina Storm-Jensen and Matthew Ball.
The novelty on the menu is The Weathering, by the fashionable black American choreographer Kyle Abraham. According to his interview in the programme, its theme is loss, though for the bulk of its duration you could have fooled me into thinking it was just about kids (nine men, and two women who seem peripheral) romping in the playground. A sense of isolation, absence and bereavement emerges in a final solo, danced with touching ardour by Joshua Junker, a member of the corps and clearly one to watch.
Abraham’s vocabulary is a tad generic: classically based, but flecked with jazzy and street syncopations. Likeable, yes, fluent and assured, the cloth smoothly cut: but what The Weathering lacks is any overall architecture or dramatic impetus. It moves on the spot, it doesn’t connect or grow or travel, it offers no shape or logic beyond presenting a succession of short dances. Abraham should watch Balanchine’s Agon 50 times to learn how to make a suite of dances mean something more aesthetically substantial.
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