George Piper Dances, Roundhouse, London; <br/>Mark Morris Dance Group, Sadler's Wells, London

Ballet's answer to Jamie Oliver - times two
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The Independent Culture

George Piper Dances

It takes nerve to launch a new ballet company in a recession. And it demands brazen chutzpah to put yourself and your best mate forward as co-directors, co-choreographers and stars of the enterprise. But anyone who saw the two Ballet Boyz series on Channel 4 will know that Michael Nunn and William Trevitt have confidence in spades. Armed with nothing but a wobbly camera, they confided matily with the nation as they quit the Royal Ballet, got the rock star treatment in Japan, and (coming soon in Ballet Boyz III) laid plans for their very own show. Cockney charm is their choicest weapon. They are ballet's answer to Jamie Oliver, times two.

So it was clever of them to incorporate that blokeish element in their company debut at the Roundhouse, chiefly via some likeable, off-the-cuff chat shown live on a big screen. It was less clever, in my opinion, to give themselves a mouthful of a new moniker – George Piper Dances – when everyone knows them as the Ballet Boyz. As for the company itself, what seemed an unlikely idea when it was mooted – to pitch classical dance to the Radiohead generation – started to look not just like a fine ambition, but achievable. The feel is fresh, the dancers can cut it, and even the material pretty much hits the button.

William Forsythe's 1984 Steptext, which upsets ballet conventions in ways that are still alarming, sets the rugged tone. Nunn and Trevitt ricochet through the bravura passages like gunshot, giving Oxana Panchenko's swimsuited moll the rough treatment she appears to be asking for.

Panchenko is a find. Imagine a young Audrey Hepburn with whippy thighs, the perfect ballet bottom, reckless physical daring and a red-hot technique. Where has she been hiding all these years? What a star. Matthew Hart, an old Royal Ballet buddy, is impressive here too, but over-egging the testosterone makes him look slightly mad – not nonchalantly dangerous like the others.

As choreographers, Nunn and Trevitt have some nice ideas but Trevitt's kinky, tango-inspired number – performed by the younger three members of the company – begs for dancers of more presence and experience. A jointly written piece, Moments of Plastic Jubilation, relies entirely for its trashy success on the duo's wild video effects and Matthew Hindson's rollercoaster score.

Trevitt and Panchenko were better stretched in Sigue, a meaty duet made by Paul Lightfoot and set to Chopin, played live. Each partner succeeds in projecting the stark isolation that can exist within marriage, ending with them lying in the missionary position for the entire duration of a Chopin Prelude while a trickle of dust settles over their bodies. Quite an achievement, given the current connotations of white powder let loose in public spaces, that this poetic imagery pushed home hard and true.

And the best was still to come in a duet for Trevitt and Nunn by Russell Maliphant, to a compelling electronic score by Richard English. Critical Mass plays with images of kinship, each man using the other's body as a prop, a leg-up, a wall to bounce off or a magnetic force. Technically sharp and emotionally gruff and touching by turns, it makes a fitting policy statement for this likeable pair. This ballet lark isn't for wimps, it says. And there's a new audience out there ready to believe it.

The American Mark Morris broke the mould long ago in the field of contemporary dance. The USP of his company was its overthrow of how we expect a dancer to look. The heavy, the squat, the gangly, even the formally untrained, brought their distinct qualities to movement that managed to look joyously easy. Hell, he made you think, even I could do that!

With its phenomenal success, the company has got leaner and more dancerly (with the exception of Morris himself, whose beer gut has grown exponentially). But this week's programme fully lived up to the values UK audiences have come to adore Morris for. The animalistic power that culminates through the savage stompings and circle dances of Grand Duo. Straightforward loveliness in depictions of Monteverdi songs. The spectacle of Morris himself gambolling through a set of obscure Satie piano pieces with a childish enthusiasm that (whether you find yourself wincing at the indulgence or not) seems to touch the very core of the impulse to move to music.

Morris once said that one reason he made dances "is to trick people into hearing music better". That persuasive brilliance is never more in evidence than in V, the major work commissioned by Dance Umbrella, whose images give startling insights into Schumann's great E flat piano quintet. Creeping on all fours like hedgehogs through that mysterious slow movement – who else could have dreamt that up? And who else would have dared?

j.gilbert@independent.co.uk

GPD: Memorial Hall, Marlborough (01980 630414) 27 October, and touring. Mark Morris: New Victoria Theatre, Woking (01483 545900) Tues & Wed; Theatre Royal, Newcastle (0191 232 2061) Fri & Sat, and touring

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