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Fresh kicks, classical style

Ballet Boyz, a.k.a. George Piper Dances, invades the U.S. with moves from up-to-the-minute choreographers.

September 14, 2003|Allen Robertson | Special to The Times

LONDON — "JUST because we are classical dancers," Michael Nunn says, "doesn't mean we sit in a darkened room eating lentils in the lotus position."

Indeed not. Nunn and William Trevitt, better known as the Ballet Boyz, are revving up for an assault on America. Their company's cross-country tour will open at UCLA's Royce Hall, Oct. 3-4, and wind up in New York in November. Another North American stint, this time including Canada, is already being negotiated. For the current tour, they'll be sharing the stage with three other dancers, including a pair of feisty ballerinas who have discarded their tutus.

The company's goal is to kick ballet into the 21st century with works by such up-to-the-minute choreographers as William Forsythe and Christopher Wheeldon. But the "Boyz" moniker is the result of a pair of successful television documentaries made for London's Channel 4. "Now," says Trevitt, "though we've never liked the name, we have to promote ourselves as the Ballet Boyz. When it was first proposed by Channel 4, we thought it was stupid, we hated the name. OK, it's served us well, but do we look like boyz?"

"You have to sell tickets any way you can," Nunn interjects. "And the 'Boyz' thing really has opened doors for us."

A pseudonym is born

Trevitt, 34, and Nunn, 36, have actually known each other since they were boys. The two met in 1984 at the Royal Ballet School. "Billy was already there," says Nunn. "We were both asked to join the Royal Ballet in 1987." Eventually, they both were also cast in leading roles and went on to marry "ballet girls" who were dancing with the company.

Then, more than a decade ago, the pair began a sideline in photography. One of the first jobs they went after was a poster for a Royal Ballet performance. "We didn't want it to look like a couple of ballet dancers being given a silver spoon," says Nunn. "So, George Piper was born." The pseudonym is an amalgam of their middle names. "George from me. Piper from Billy."

In 1999, they moved on to video and made "Ballet Boyz," a fly-on-the-wall documentary about their final days with the Royal. It was a tense time. Along with three other men, they were planning to stage a mass exodus in order to join a new troupe, K Company, that dancer Tetsuya Kumakawa was setting up in Japan. Their follow-up film, "Ballet Boyz II -- The Next Step," focused on K Company's tumultuous first season.

Then, in 2001, they launched their own company: George Piper Dances. It has succeeded beyond all expectations.

"That first show was a real 'all or nothing' situation," Nunn remembers. "We spent every penny we ever had on it to try and establish ourselves as something more than just another small dance company."

To accomplish this, they enlisted their video skills. Each performance includes live and impromptu backstage footage interspersed among the dances. For the American tour, they are also compiling a five-minute, back-catalog introduction.

"Our videos," Nunn says, "offer an insight into us as people, give audiences a way in. I think it makes the performance a much closer experience. We want the audience to see that we're normal, hard-working people who just happen to have quite an extraordinary job.

"It's our way of breaking down the barrier between the audience and what can seem a bunch of rather forbidding people."

"In Greece recently, we dubbed the whole show and they loved it," says Trevitt. "Michael did the intro, the first 30 seconds, live to camera, from a Greek phrase book, and all of a sudden you've made friends."

"There are only five of us," adds Nunn, "so we replace spectacle with personality."

The American program will open with Forsythe's sizzling quartet "Steptext." Its sleek neoclassicism requires accomplished technique. It is also something of a cantankerous piece, which begins by deliberately throwing the audience off kilter: It "starts" seemingly before it's meant to. The house lights have yet to go down when the dancers begin appearing on the stage and performing in silence. Forsythe, like the George Piper dancers, relishes the challenge of discovering ways to break down the traditional "us" and "them" conventions that exist between audience and performer.

"It's such a statement," Nunn says. "You can hear audiences thinking, 'Do we sit down? Do we talk? Do we watch?' You know immediately that this isn't just another dance show. Some people get annoyed, but it's a great way to grab their attention. And there's no way anybody can argue with the technique."

"I've seen too many classical dancers go off to do other stuff and lose the edge on their technique," Trevitt says. "It's important for us to keep that edge -- it's how we've kept the standard of our shows so high."

Prestigious approval

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