writers on dancing


Broken Fall

An Evening by Russell Maliphant
Sylvie Guillem and the Ballet Boyz
Sadler’s Wells Theatre
September 28 – October 2, 2004

By John Percival
copyright © 2004 by John Percival

What a wonderful collaboration this was, uniting four artists who all enhanced their careers by drastic changes. Sylvie Guillem first switched from gymnastics to ballet, joined the Ballet de l’Opéra in Paris and raced up its hierarchy, from newcomer to étoile in three years. Then she left Paris for a London-based international career, in the process transforming the Royal Ballet (her chief affiliation) by demanding the modern works of William Forsythe, Mats Ek, etc. As a classical ballerina, she is in a class of her own—perfect body, amazing balance, and truly expressive, too—but she has also gone out of her way to try alternative choreography, even including the between-wars German expressionist Mary Wigman.

Just about the time of Ms. Guillem’s move, Russell Maliphant left Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, where he had proved an able and elegant dancer, for a free-lance career with several modern choreographers. His experiences with them, including martial arts and improvisation, led him to start making dances himself, developing a style that combines great strength and control with a smooth, often gentle surface and much variety of texture.

Add to the mixture Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, two young men whose small company George Piper Dances, started three years ago, has already had two short US tours. Their background is that they danced leading roles with the Royal Ballet but branched out into photography and video, winning fame on television as the Ballet Boyz. Feeling insecure about the Royal Ballet’s future when Covent Garden opera house closed for rebuilding, and unhappy also for want of interesting new work with the company, they left and danced initially with Tetsuo Kumakawa’s K Ballet in Japan. When that proved artistically unrewarding, they returned to Britain and, drawing on their experience, set up George Piper (taken from their middle names) to work with choreographers who interested them. Notable among these were William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon—and Russell Maliphant. They discovered him through seeing his duet “Critical Mass” which excited them because, unusually, it allowed two straight men to show friendship on stage, intimate, trusting and playful.

This was “something that we really wanted to have a go at,” Mr. Trevitt says, finding the movement a real challenge, difficult but inspiring. Impressed that they had proved their ability by starting to teach themselves the duet from a video, Mr. Maliphant allowed them to have “Critical Mass” for their programmes and later made another two-man work for them, “Torsion”. Ingeniously, in its solos and duets, this brought out their individual qualities as well as their similarities.Ms. Guillem saw that and two pieces by Mr. Maliphant’s own company at London’s dance theatre The Place and was so excited that she told the “Boyz” she would like to do something like it.

Hence “Broken Fall”, a trio made by Mr. Maliphant specially for Ms. Guillem and Messrs, Nunn and Trevitt, and premiered last December at Covent Garden by arrangement with the Royal Ballet. The complex, often risky partnering means that it’s all about trust, and she will not dance it without them. [They have now done it with their own women for George Piper Dances, but it doesn’t then have quite the same edge.] Mr. Maliphant makes much use of very simple walking—that’s one of the things Ms. Guillem makes paradoxically exciting—but he also introduces some extraordinarily frightening lifts and throws. The work starts very quietly with static solos for each of the men, and ends just as quietly with a gently circling solo for Ms. Guillem. Actually what comes between, the main action, is mostly without great speed; they tend to lift or drop her with a cool deliberation.

Bringing “Torsion” and “Broken Fall” together for a completely sold out week at Sadler’s Wells, this programme (which goes later to Paris and elsewhere) added as its centrepiece a new solo for Ms. Guillem, “Two”. Developed from a dance Mr. Maliphant originally made for his wife Dana Fouras, this is performed on the spot, in the centre of a small square of light devised by Mr. Maliphant’s regular collaborator Michael Hulls. At first only the hands and arms are in action, but as the dancer revolves within her allotted space her legs begin to kick out too, and a stronger outer beam momentarily picks out a foot or a hand.

Although trapped by the choreographic and lighting design, Ms. Guillem’s attack radiates strongly, and the dance gains in both speed and force right to the very end, when the falling curtain hides her with the impression that this climax could have continued to grow. Superficially “Two” is simple, but it proves to be one of the most thrilling things Ms. Guillem has ever done, and fully deserved the tumultuous cheers that greeted it.
Volume 2, No. 38
October 11, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by John Percival


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last updated on October 11, 2004