The drama of the individual who stands apart, separate from his clan, continues to intrigue contemporary dance artists. This primal antagonism surfaced again on Tuesday at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, in “The Murmuring,” a dark and tumultuous work that British choreographer Alexander Whitley created for the Ballet Boyz, in London.
The Ballet Boyz, originally a showcase for Royal Ballet alumni Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, has grown to institutional size and now travels with 10 male dancers whom the founders call “the TALENT.” The current touring program features slick, behind-the-scenes videos and a pair of boisterous ensemble pieces in which the company appears buff and accomplished. After intermission, Christopher Wheeldon’s elegant “Mesmerics” wraps up the evening. Despite the company’s playful moniker, the evening is short on hijinks, with a mature sensibility.
The introductory video reveals that Whitley was thinking of birds in flight when he created “The Murmuring,” and it associates the dance with a quotation from Robert Burns (“Nature’s mighty law is change”). The dancers worked to recreate instinctual “flocking” behavior in the studio; and in the finished piece disciplined groups of men strike out together, suddenly wheeling and landing in another part of the stage. The society depicted in “The Murmuring” seems more human than avian, however. A recurring image shows the men forming a wedge with one man tilted forward at the “prow.” The others extend their arms to grasp him and link to their fellows, but are they steadying and supporting one another or holding one another back?
Unlike a V-shaped flock of geese crossing the sky, this wedge does not travel, but reorganizes itself internally. The men inhabit the structure as if it were a warren. When it splits apart, they organize themselves into opposing blocs or lines, and they pause to watch one of their comrades left alone on the floor as if wounded and unable to keep up. Electronic music by the duo known as Raime offers a thumping beat overlaid with other sounds, but the dancing seems to have its own rhythm, alternating between silken moves and sharp bursts of energy.
Partnering sections follow. Some viewers may find the movement violent, while others will see dedicated teamwork that creates startling effects — like the moment when a man suddenly flips over his partners in a trio. Despite this evidence of cooperation, the brotherhood of “The Murmuring” is fractured.
In a defining episode, one man (Bradley Waller) finds himself alone. Shrinking from a dim light shining from above, he exaggerates the movements we have seen before, rolling slowly and then tensing, rising to swat the air and toppling again. The group returns to watch him silently. Then they resume their churning, stymying any loners who appear among them by snatching them up or blocking their passage. When it’s time for everyone to leave, Waller can’t bring himself to join the others. The ending has him thrashing, solo, on the floor.
Finally, the Burns quotation suggests not only the continuous reordering of the group, but one man’s growth and transformation. Typically, the individual who falls out of step with society becomes a hero or a martyr in modern dance. Whitley describes “The Murmuring” as “political,” though evidently his work has a more oblique message than Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring” or Martha Graham’s “Heretic”; Ohad Naharin’s “Anaphaza” or Shen Wei’s “Re-III.”
“Mesmerics,” in contrast, seems free of any subtext. The Ballet Boyz now perform an expanded version of this beautiful piece, which Wheeldon originally created for three dancers. Though the ballet is still spare, it makes the most of its resources. Natasha Chivers’ lighting plays an important role, casting part of the stage into blueish twilight so the dancers furthest from us appear like shadows of others who are closer. Wheeldon has always been interested in repetition and visual rhythm, but perhaps this particular way of organizing and coloring the space reflects the patterns and long breaks in the ballet’s score, which is by Philip Glass.
Duets display a mix of ecstasy and control, with one partner encircling or hanging on to another and then letting go. Men cuddle, mirror each other’s movements and fall into embraces. Legs revolve like spokes when partners roll on the floor; and, though his style is contemporary, Wheeldon shows a ballet artist’s interest in crisp lines. Only a ballet choreographer would give us a moment of stillness to admire Andrea Carrucciu’s leg in arabesque. But the men stiffen their arms, too, and sometimes lead with them. Legs joined tautly in fifth position or in “cabrioles” contrast with wide stances and X shapes, as Wheeldon plays with closed and open figures. “Mesmerics” speeds up excitingly, only to relax and wind down. When the men finally rest, the blue twilight enfolds them, freeing them to dream.
Ballet Boyz will appear at the Joyce Theater in New York, Feb. 23-28. For information, visit joyce.org.
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