Ballet Boyz: Young Men
Choreographed by Ivan Perez, score by Keaton Henson
Ballet Boyz with Sadlers Wells and 14-18 NOW - WW1 Centenary Arts Commissions
Sadler’s Wells Theatre
Choreographers have responded to “war and the pity of war,” to use Owen’s telling phrase, in many ways.
Kenneth Macmillan’s elegiac Gloria of 1980 placed its emphasis on loss; last year’s ballets from Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan, which English National Ballet commissioned to mark the centenary of when the First World War began, put much of their focus on the role of women.
Young Men offers the experience of the soldier, his trauma. Set to a pulsating, emotion laden score by Keaton Henson, it is an impressive achievement. First seen at Sadler's Wells in January, it makes a welcome return.
Although part was show-cased in a triple bill last year, this is not specifically about the Great War. Its subject is much wider, a century of modern warfare, but 1914-18 cut down a generation of the youth of Europe and this is about the young men.
Young Men is made up of ten movements. Choreographer Ivan Perez has given them all titles but it is neither narrative nor necessarily sequential. Its interpretation is necessarily subjective, depending on the spectator’s own experience: if you have seen service, lived through conflict it may resonate differently from how those who haven’t feel it.
It opens with a section called “Aftermath of War”. A line of men moves slowly into the distance, a woman weaves across the stage in front of them sometimes between them, sometimes seemingly grieving, sometimes seeking protection. Is it a mourning for lost loves, husband son or brother, a memory of her own experience and suffering?
One could equally read this as a generation going off to war. In 1914, lads may have marched off to waving flags and cheering but in the century after they were not blinded by brass band bravado.
This is a ballet in which meaning can be multiple as well as personal, changing mid-movement from one thing to its opposite, between killing an enemy and saving a friend as a struck-down body is caught up, the opposite as a lift is passed across the shoulders and cast down again.
These are young men before being soldiers; they aren’t in battledress. Designer Carlijn Petermeijer puts them in shirts in blues, greens and purple, trousers or navy tracksuit bottoms. Boots and sometimes puttee-like wrappings make them more military and backpacks may be carried, but there are no swords, no bayoneted rifles, no grenades or any other weapons.
There are no bright flares, exploding shells; when bullets strike we do not hear their whistle, just once a shower of debris that buries boys, changes the whole environment and makes the stage more perilous.
There is no other scenery apart from patterned gauze upstage that, barely visible, screens the musicians behind it and another plain one downstage for the opening sequence. Setting is smoke and mist and Jackie Shemesh’s lighting, beams cutting through darkness.
The choreography is fast and rigorously demanding giving contrast to elegiac slower moments. Sudden dashes, floor slides, repeated lifts sometimes in strange positions, wounded bodies, the weight of dead ones, twisting spins at floor level, limbs at odd angles: these dancers could show the hip-hop street dance boys a thing or two.
“Training a Soldier” is a movement that captures exactly the tensions of basic training. Not the boredom of disparagement of the drill square that breaks the spirit and imposes discipline but continuing its immediate response to orders in repetitions on the assault course, with a short-arsed NCO barking condemnation—it captures that mixture of hating it yet been determines to prove that you can do it in front of the others with an especially true touch as the sergeant is suddenly friendly once everyone has proved their mettle.
This is essentially an ensemble work: though characterisation may surface or relationship register for a moment this is about all soldiers not a particular group of individuals. In the atmospheric lighting, it is difficult to identify an individual except for the two women, who represent perhaps a mother and a wife or lover, at one point out in the war zone hoping to find their boy, becoming a sexual plaything and elsewhere welcoming or mourning them.
Andrea Carrucciu in the “Shell Shock” movement in a near solo is clearly identifiable however, his near naked body well lit as it knots and twists grotesquely, his body expressing the same fear and horror so real on his face. Is the man who joins him there to help him the enemy or a fearful figment of his trauma? Impressive.
The same ambiguity exists in a section titled “Gas, Gas, Gas”. Eschewing the iconic line of men known from photographs and Sergeant’s famous painting, Pérez shows soldiers reacting to gas and the desperation of the blinded men. Again there is ambivalence about what is happening. Who are the enemy, who the helpers?
A sequence labelled “Leap of Faith” emerges from an image of men on their backs, boots angled in the air, which chillingly suggests the blasted trees of No Man’s Land so familiar from photographs. With the score heavy with the drone of aircraft engines, Pérez succeeds in making his audience see men on the ground as figures falling through space. They could be airmen bailing out, perhaps over enemy territory, or paratroopers leading an invasion or attack.
The drama peaks in “Battleship Landscape” with wave after wave of advancing, leaping, sliding men rushing towards the audience, the timing and repetition making eight dancers seem like a regiment. Is it a flinging away of lives or an heroic advance? Sometimes Pérez overdoes the repetition in his choreography but not here. It is relentless. It seems a natural ending but there’s a coda: the women and a “Homecoming.” the costs of war revealed to those that stayed behind.
Young Men’s mix of natural runs and pacing with acrobatic leaps and complex turns does not make this a choreographic classic but its drama and theatricality, the conviction, energy and risk-taking of its dancers all make it and exciting and moving piece of theatre, its atmospheric staging helped by what the audience brings of its own feelings about war.