When ex-Royal Ballet dancers William Trevitt and Michael Nunn announced their plan to take challenging modern ballet to the provinces, the dance world was sceptical. At a time when big hitters in the metropolis find contemporary stuff hard to sell, what hope for a five-strong troupe trekking round the kind of theatres that share a car park with Toys R Us? Twelve months on, George Piper Dances is not only still alive but kicking very handsomely. What's more, to judge by the audience I joined in suburban West Sussex, it seems to have cracked the hardest nut of all: it has found a youth market for classical dance. At least half the crowd in Crawley appeared to be under 16. And during the applause my ears did not deceive me. Some of those girls were squealing.
It helps, of course, that Mike and Billy had already established their credentials as "the ballet boyz" on Channel 4, leaving no doubt about their street cred. What no one could guess, though, was how they would contrive to weave that video-diary chattiness into their stage show. "Hi," says a stubbly Michael Nunn filmed outside the very theatre we're sitting in. "It's 10.30am as I'm saying this. We're just about to rehearse, so I'd better go and have a shave. See ya later." Cheerful video scraps of rehearsal – including, endearingly, bits going wrong – are liberally dropped in between polished live performances. The effect is that you feel a) that the dancers could be and may soon become your very best mates, and b) doubly awed by their skill in negotiating some extremely demanding choreography. William Forsythe's Steptext – almost a company trademark after a year on the road – has the kind of glamour, aloofness and limb-wrenching risk-factor that could make you doubt the dancers were fully human had you not just seen them on video snatching a ciggie. The addition of strong, leggy Leire Ortueta (another Royal Ballet refugee) to the team adds a thrilling Amazonian quality to GPD's already scorching attack in this modern classic.
Even more impressive is the way Nunn and Trevitt hold the stage on their own. In Torsion, the long duet Russell Maliphant made expressly to exploit their special partnership, the pair come over so unflinchingly blunt and male that you might take them for a couple of plumbers. Yet there is a fine equilibrium in their muscular interlockings. One minute Nunn is toting Trevitt's body like a machine gun, the next their torsos are braided together like steel rope.
Not surprisingly, neither of the tour's two newer pieces reaches anything like this pitch. Where Charles Linehan's offering looks merely pale and flat alongside, Other Men's Wives, by Matthew Hart, strikes me as seriously odd. Tipping expectation on its head with a quaint little story complete with mime and pretty costumes could have been effective done with more swagger. But Hart's response to Benjamin Britten's "Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard" is too mimsy for words.
The work's one redeeming feature is Cathy de Monchaux's set, an objet d'art in itself, which takes the form of a large, hinged, jewel-encrusted box, also giving service as palace doors, a bed, and a coffin. While I applaud the choreographer's nerve in trying to swim against the abstractionist tide, he will have to come up with something spunkier than this.
Rambert's Christopher Bruce is an old hand at feeding the appetite for stories without seeming retrogressive. Were he a greater egotist, he could have made an entire evening of his own golden oldies for his final London season as artistic director. As it was, Grinning In Your Face, set to finger-picking guitar arrangements by Martin Simpson, was the single Bruce item – a pity, since nothing else was nearly so jolly.
Best of a gloomy bunch was PreSentient, the new commission from Wayne McGregor, urged on by the London Musici's thrillingly energised string playing in Steve Reich's Triple Concerto. Yet for all the choreography's turbo thrust, and deft deployment of large forces, the piece had none of the jagged daring you get when McGregor himself performs.
George Piper Dances: The Point, Eastleigh (023 8065 2333), Wed & Thur; Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 448844), 24 Nov. Rambert: Theatre Royal, Plymouth (01752 267222), 27-30 Nov
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