Wilton's Music Hall
Dancers rise, fall like fodder as if forces of an explosion sent them spiraling upwards, only to come crashing down with a thud into the mire of mud and blackness.
This is Young Men, version number three—a punch in the stomach, gripping mesh of film and dance charting the experiences of young male soldiers sent to fight in the First World War.
Choreographed by Iván Pérez, whose stage work premièred three years earlier, this latest version screens clips from the BalletBoyz feature film created to tackle imagery representing the cruel terrain of life on the front. Shot on location in the killing fields of Flanders, the film runs alongside dancers who appear both on the film footage and onstage- building into the performance’s sense of scale and magnitude in a small theatre.
Dancers move in response to a haunting score composed by singer-songwriter Keaton Henson and performed live at Wilton’s Music Hall by Jeremy Young on the piano and Reinoud Ford on cello. Much of the sound design is deeply disturbing, from the deafening foghorns bellowing through the theatre to screech-worthy, high-pitched, industrial buzzing that feels like scraping fingernails against a chalkboard.
The stage is cloaked in mystery—dark and broodingly lit by Andrew Ellis, often clogged with smoke that drifts out into the auditorium, while dancers emerge flying out of the white spotlight only to disappear into the abyss. Film projections of trees climb and creep above stage as well as bodies sending giant shadows out and up the peeling atmospheric walls of the music hall.
Wilton’s Music Hall is an intimate venue. The dancers seem somewhat restricted in terms of breadth and space around them and this often creates the impression of movement in suspension, rather than an illusion of speed. When dancers fly across the stage—they don’t have far enough to travel. However, the advantage is that performers are up close and personal—important given that celluloid creates the space—but also distance from the physicality of live performance.
Action is laid out in sections, exploring the physical and emotional experience of war through stories from the front as well as home and dancers are each and everyone superb in performance. Yet despite such rich and visceral imagery representing trench-life, the messages don’t always appear deeply explored by Perez and repetition, understandably used as a tool to capture an essence of army existence through the routine drudgery of war, can sometimes feel lengthy in terms of the choreography.
There is a small cast (eight men and two women), even though it feels like endless lines of boys hurling themselves out of from the blinding light into nothingness and two women in various incarnations: the lover, the mother and the wife. Repetition is a theme from movement and music, the endlessly drawn out sound of a singular cello chord or the hurling movement of beautifully arched backs falling into each other over and over again.
Ultimately, though, it’s the individual stories that stick. A man returning home after the war to mother and wife—or a solider suffering mental breakdown clutches the head of a woman, refusing to let go until he meets death. Also deeply moving is the poetic camaraderie between the men: they physically support one another, fall into outstretched arms and comfort each other when the chips are down.
Perhaps, though, most powerful is the scene of a shell-shocked solider. Emaciated and lost, he moves like an animal caught in a trap, ribs jutting out, painfully thin, sloping across the floor dislocating his body into uncomfortable shapes—all bones and enormous eyes, hollow with exhaustion.
This is harrowing material and hard to forget, burning into the retina and leaving its indelible print. It’s impossible to comprehend such horror that comes with the terrain, so surely the aim of this work must be that we never forget the lost lives—the human cost of the Great War of 14-18. In this respect, the performance is a fittingly poignant way to mark the 100 years Armistice.