William Trevitt and Michael Nunn: The new lords of the dance

William Trevitt and Michael Nunn have done more than anyone to popularise dance. Stripping off for their new show will help, too. Lyndsey Winship meets the pair
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The Independent Culture

Two thirtysomething blokes sit down in front of me. They're slightly crumpled-looking, wearing scruffy jeans, with tired faces that you know would turn out pretty good-looking with a decent night's sleep. All in all, they're resolutely normal.

Two thirtysomething blokes sit down in front of me. They're slightly crumpled-looking, wearing scruffy jeans, with tired faces that you know would turn out pretty good-looking with a decent night's sleep. All in all, they're resolutely normal.

Not since Clark Kent has anyone used normality as such an effective secret weapon. But it has worked a treat for "TV's Ballet Boyz" - aka George Piper Dances, otherwise known as the former Royal Ballet dancers Michael Nunn and William Trevitt.

Perhaps it's the weight of all those alter egos that has them looking so exhausted. But it's more likely to be the pressure of producing, directing, choreographing and starring in their first full-length dance show, Naked. Oh, and reinventing ballet for the masses while they're at it.

Who would know that these two mild-mannered men were responsible for shaking up the dance establishment, exposing the backstage troubles of the Royal Opera House and putting more dance on the small screen than ever before? Nunn and Trevitt have transformed the idea of male dancing, and of male dancers, in the public imagination in a far more radical way than little Billy Elliot. Not bad for a couple of boys just looking for a bit of job satisfaction.

Nunn, 37 and Trevitt, 35, met 20 years ago as students at the Royal Ballet School. They graduated into the company together and their careers followed similar paths, rising up the ranks (Trevitt to principal, Nunn to first soloist) and often being cast in opposing roles. But it wasn't their parallel lives on stage that cemented their friendship. It was the opposite; the fact that neither had the tunnel vision of so many dancers, wholly focused on their performance and the roles they'd get next season. They weren't blinkered by the ballet world.

Nunn and Trevitt found that they shared interests outside dance; specifically, film and photography. They embarked on projects together, taking rehearsal photographs and portraits and crediting them to an amalgam of their middle names, George Piper.

Then came the video camera. Innocently accompanying the boys backstage, to rehearsals and even board meetings, it just happened to capture a time at the Royal Opera House in the late Nineties when the place was going into near-meltdown, losing its Covent Garden home and a succession of directors, and then six of its top male dancers, including Nunn and Trevitt, who fled to Japan to form K Ballet with the virtuoso Tetsuya Kumakawa. The film, which Nunn and Trevitt had intended for the Royal Ballet archives, had such strong news value and interest that it ended up going out on Channel 4 in 1999 under the title of Ballet Boyz, generating vast publicity for the boys who jumped ship.

The Japanese jaunt - something Trevitt now refers to as "our dark period in Japan" - was less of a success. He and Nunn essentially ended up becoming a backing band to the ballet-cum-Beatles phenomenon "Teddy" Kumakawa. There were screaming fans in abundance, but little creative fulfilment.

So, it was back to London, where George Piper got a second chance at stardom when the boys founded their own company. From the start, in 2001, George Piper Dances seemed marked out for success - two talented dancers, boosted by their post-Royal Ballet publicity and blessed with TV-friendly looks and charm.

They produced a second Ballet Boyz documentary in 2001, followed last year by the four-part Rough Guide to Choreography, also for Channel 4. The pair played on the popularity of their warts-and-all video diaries by inserting excerpts between the dancing in their stage shows. It was a winning formula, mainly thanks to the cheeky knockabout charm of the stars. Their impish humour and down-to-earth banter easily seduced audiences.

The Rough Guide series took them on a quest to understand the art of making dance, visiting choreographers they have worked with, such as Christopher Wheeldon, but also taking tips from a capoeira master, Trevitt's mum, who practises t'ai chi, and Justin Timberlake's choreographer Marty Kudelka. It was a move typical of their inclusive approach. They're not dumbing down, just demystifying.

The project culminated with Trevitt trying to create a dance piece of his own. His creative toils, his clueless rehearsals and his "back to the drawing board" moments were all recorded for posterity. It showed that choreography was a job, not some kind of magic trick. Trevitt was happy to admit to camera that he didn't know what he was doing half the time, yet the finished piece turned out fine.

"You'd be surprised at the amount of choreographers we've worked with where you go into a room and they're, like, 'I don't know what we're doing. I haven't even got an idea. What do you want to do? Do you want to start in the corner and go over there?'" Nunn says. "That's how it starts sometimes."

"What we've always tried to say is that we've trained long and hard and we are able to do this unusual, exceptional job on the stage, but the rest of the time we're not unusual or exceptional. We're ordinary people. And that contrast is perhaps what's interesting," Trevitt says.

"I think it helps people to access the work a lot more," adds Nunn. "They see us as normal people performing these sometimes quite difficult works. And it makes it more acceptable for them. They're not as frightened. We'll quite openly say we don't understand the work either, but it's good to look at."

In a mute art form like dance, which can often seem to exist in a world entirely separate from its viewers, the most shocking thing Nunn and Trevitt did was actually to speak directly to their audience - literally, with words - and bring them a step closer to the extraordinary bodies on stage. It's a stark contrast to the stereotypical image of the precious ballerina: distant, otherworldly, diva-ish. "We are otherworldly, aren't we?" jokes Nunn. "And diva-ish," adds Trevitt. "This is just our press persona," Nunn explains, laying on the geezer tones.

But presentation isn't everything. Nunn and Trevitt have given the ballet world something entirely new - a male double-act. No ballet, or company, has been built on a partnership that wasn't a conventional male/female romantic one. Nunn and Trevitt have put a new dynamic on stage, one that embraces friendship, challenge, trust and testosterone-driven energy rather than love.

It's true that contemporary choreographers have been experimenting with these sorts of partnerships for years, so it's no surprise that, for their first piece together, Nunn and Trevitt decided to learn Critical Mass, a duet by another Royal Ballet escapee, Russell Maliphant, who had turned to contemporary dance.

Critical Mass and Torsion, the signature duet Maliphant created for George Piper Dances, use a highly physical brand of choreography combining martial arts, contact improvisation and contemporary dance in a graceful rough-and- tumble, a combination of strength and stealth, where the dancers manipulate each other's bodies in unlikely balances and impressive acrobatics. It's entirely asexual, yet there can be a breathtaking tenderness in their performances.

It was entirely coincidental that the launch of George Piper Dances came just after Billy Elliot fever swept the country, and after Matthew Bourne's all-male Swan Lake. It was never the boys' intention to set out on a two-man crusade for the cause of male dance. But the fact that they don't happen to be gay, vain, egotistical or any of the other stereotypes associated with male ballet dancers can only have been a boost to the art's image.

The idea of two men dancing with each other, even after all those years of partnering dainty ballerinas at the Royal, never struck them as a big deal. Only, perhaps, a strain on the muscles. Nunn says of their initial rehearsals: "It was exhausting, wasn't it? We couldn't get through more than about three minutes." Trevitt continues: "The idea of dancing together didn't seem to be strange at all. It never even occurred to us that it would be something people would pick up on as unusual or odd, to see two men dancing together. I never really thought about that. It just seemed at the time that we could only afford ourselves."

Their casting, therefore, was determined by economics. "We're still in the same position that we were in when we started the company; that we were the cheapest dancers we could find," Trevitt says. "If we were going to do it we might as well be dancing, and then that's two bodies accounted for." They did bring in other dancers, notably Birmingham Royal Ballet's Monica Zamora and the long-limbed Ukrainian Oxana Panchenko. And for this new show, Naked, there are two new dancers, Yvette Halfhide and Thomas Linecar. But Nunn and Trevitt remain firmly the box-office draw.

Their star status continues to bemuse the pair, however much they * * have done to nurture it. "Maybe it's our training, or our previous life in the Royal Ballet," Nunn says. "You don't really consider yourself to be a box-office draw." Trevitt agrees, of course: "I'd like to think we offer something that people are interested in. There are certain production values and a quality to what we do, more than that people come to see us dance. We're not that good, are we?"

"We've had to play on this 'Ballet Boyz' thing," Trevitt admits. "We resisted that for a while, but actually it doesn't affect what you get on stage. We're still putting the show on that we think is the right show. I don't care how people get tricked into the theatre."

Of course, promoting their ordinariness in the first place is, ironically, exactly what has helped to turn them into stars, by selling their personalities alongside their performances. And the boys are hardly naive about that. Despite their insistence that they are not the star attraction, they have never been afraid to court publicity, racking up copious column inches, posing for naked photographs in Attitude magazine, and even appearing on Ready Steady Cook.

But all that has been balanced by artistic accolades: a succession of rave reviews, a successful show at the Roundhouse, and the likes of superstar ballerina Sylvie Guillem begging to work with them. They took the top two dance prizes at last year's Olivier awards, with the top gong going to Maliphant's Broken Fall, the piece they created with Guillem, which is being turned into a 90-minute documentary to be aired next spring.

To onlookers, it might appear that Nunn and Trevitt have well and truly made it, but there's no such thing as security in running your own small dance company. "It feels like we're scrabbling around most of the time," Trevitt says. "I think we've had certain successes, but from the business end, we're still just in the studio struggling to make things work every day. And people in the office are struggling to make ends meet every day. In that sense, I think we could be a lot more successful.

"We've become an associate company of Sadler's Wells, and that possibly gives the impression that we're fine now. But financially, that's certainly not true. We're always working hand to mouth. We never know we're going to have enough money to do any given production."

And so, just to make living on the edge that little bit more hairy, the boys have decided to push the boat out even further. Having found a formula that people seemed to like - a mixed bill of short, mainly abstract pieces, plus the filmed sections showing the creative process or a bit of behind-the-scenes banter - they have decided to try something new.

"It seemed to be working well," Trevitt says. "People liked that formula. And around that time is probably when we start getting bored with it. We felt that we could reproduce that, but it wouldn't really be pushing us forward in any way, and we felt we should try something we hadn't tried before - a whole evening piece and a narrative."

Perhaps it was when Nunn noticed that the Royal Opera House was showing backstage footage on its front-of-house billboards, just like the films the two made eight years ago (which had horrified the house), that he realised it was time to move on. From trash TV to high art, everybody's doing "reality" these days. "That's why we've stopped doing it," Trevitt says. "We're getting away from reality now. Glamour is the new reality," Nunn adds. You heard it here first.

But nevertheless, there is a pressing reality for the boys right now - a show to put on, with sets half-built and music yet to be written and scenes that don't have any steps. Naked works with more overt themes than any of George Piper Dances' previous pieces, so it's really something for the company, and hopefully the audience too, to get their teeth into. At the centre of the show is the story of one relationship, transformed by desire, betrayal and revenge, and played out by six very different dancers. It's not a conventional narrative and it leans heavily on the power of suggestion, leaving audiences to do some of the work.

The piece began in development with Maliphant but it has been choreographed by Nunn and Trevitt. It will no doubt bear Maliphant's contemporary mark, but at the same time Nunn and Trevitt have been keen to keep hold of the best elements of classical ballet. Then again, all the female dancers will be wearing heels - definitely not ballet as we know it.

Apart from Trevitt's short piece for the Rough Guide, this is the pair's first choreographic venture. Clearly, there's nothing like jumping in at the deep end. Luckily, their working relationship seems to be remarkably smooth, so there have been no tantrums to hamper proceedings. "We've been working together so long that, in a way, we're able to speak with one voice. It's as if there is just one person leading the rehearsal," Trevitt says. And it's true that the pair often seem to form two halves of the same dancer, coming out with answers in tandem and finishing each other's sentences.

Naked has turned into a major production, much bigger than first planned. There are sets for the first time, by the Tony award-winner Bob Crowley, who is fitting this project in between the two stage musicals Mary Poppins and Tarzan. There are two lighting designers, Paule Constable and Michael Hulls, video projections by Hugo Glendinning, and music by Richard English and the Mexican composer Fernando Corona.

Despite the fact that there's a great deal riding on this show, the pair have tried to put commercial considerations aside rather than selling out and aiming for a pure crowd-pleaser. "I think why we've had some success is because we do things that we would like to see. We don't try to second-guess the audience," Nunn says. "I think that often backfires. We'd rather make it a little bit difficult and sugar it in other ways. It makes us happy, we keep our integrity and hopefully we still keep selling tickets."

And they will no doubt keep selling tickets and impressing critics. If it was all gimmickry and slick promotion, George Piper Dances wouldn't have got this far. In fact, Nunn and Trevitt have continually produced technically strong and charismatic performances and commissioned interesting material, clothing some very serious dancing in that light-hearted media-savvy exterior.

Still, it can't have passed the boys by that calling their show Naked is fairly attention-seeking, and that putting up posters featuring the glistening bare flesh of Trevitt and Zamora is going to cause some eyes to widen. But it's not a stunt, it's only good marketing.

Just out of interest, I ask - will Trevitt actually be performing naked, as the posters suggest? "You are, aren't you? Undeniably," Nunn taunts, with a grin. "I will appear naked," Trevitt reluctantly concedes. "I don't think you'll see my genitals, though." And Nunn can't resist adding: "Unless you're in row A, seat numbers 14, 15 and 16."

Well, that's far more than Clark Kent ever revealed.

'Naked' is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0870 737 7737; www.sadlerswells.com), 4-11 June, then touring to Newcastle, Poole, Salford, Oxford, York, Norwich and Birmingham

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