Men in Motion; Kyle Abraham: Pavement review – Putrov looks to the past

Coliseum; Sadler’s Wells, London
The pick of male ballet talent struggle to shine on Ivan Putrov’s bare stage, but Kyle Abraham sends his dancers soaring

Men in Motion, Ivan Putrov’s celebration of male dancing, got off to a tricky start on Wednesday’s opening night. As the audience sat down, the dancer Daniel Proietto delivered a monologue from the stage that began with text written by the actor Andrew Wale about the trampling of minority rights, and wound up with Chaplin’s speech from The Great Dictator. One can imagine this seeming like a good idea at a planning session, but in the event The Mockracy (as the monologue was titled) fell flat.

It was the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Proietto’s teeth-gratingly arch delivery didn’t help. There were boos and shouts of “get off”. It wasn’t the first night of The Rite of Spring in 1913 (when a riot broke out), but it wasn’t pretty, either.

If it was depressing to see Proietto getting the bird in this unmannerly fashion, it was also revealing of new realities. In Men in Motion, Putrov seems to be working from the assumption that it’s enough to present technically adept dancers one or two at a time, on a bare stage, and that the magic of classical dance will do the rest. It isn’t, and it won’t.

Watch a trailer for Men in Motion

Twenty-first century ballet fans can stream great performances from Covent Garden or the Bolshoi at home. They can binge-watch Baryshnikov, Acosta and Shklyarov. They can take a Polunin grand jeté or double assemblé apart, and analyse it frame by frame. In this context, the live presentation of ballet needs much more inspired planning. It speaks volumes that of the 10 performers cast in this “celebration of the male dancer”, not one is minority ethnic. Did this omission not strike anyone involved as bizarre?

Not that there isn’t fine dancing on display. Marian Walter is a principal dancer with the Staatsballett Berlin, and in Ludovic Ondiviela’s Berlin, set to a Max Richter score, he delivers a cool and unhurried masterclass in balletic control.

The Royal Ballet’s Matthew Ball is mesmerising in Christopher Bruce’s Swansong as the political prisoner dreaming of freedom. A lustrous if occasionally lightweight performer, Ball seems liberated by off-classical roles, and in Swansong, and in Ondiviela’s System/AI, he displays an authority and a command of stage space that promises great things to come.

Mathieu Ganio, the Paris Opera Ballet étoile, gives a gravely expressive account of the Prince’s Act 1 variation from Swan Lake, if one severely limited by the echoingly bare stage and absence of context, and Proietto is poignant in Russell Maliphant’s exquisite Afterlight. Putrov, meanwhile, is a muted presence. In Le Spectre de la Rose, opposite a bemused-looking Francesca Hayward, he barely seems to leave the ground. In System/AI, he dances in Ball’s shade.

Ivan Putrov and Francesca Hayward in Le Spectre de la Rose.
Ivan Putrov and Francesca Hayward in Le Spectre de la Rose. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

I’m not sure what this production betokens for his future. Putrov’s gaze, like that of so many in ballet, seems irrevocably fixed on the past.

The Pittsburgh-born dancer and choreographer Kyle Abraham has rather more immediate concerns. His hour-long Pavement employs dance to tell the story of the young men in the neighbourhood where he grew up. Inspired by John Singleton’s classic 1991 film Boyz N the Hood, set in South Central LA, Pavement shows us lives into whose fabric injustice, violence and loss are inextricably woven.

If Abraham’s subject matter is political, the dances that he makes are intensely personal and imbued with a rare grace. What strikes you first about his choreography is the austere discipline underpinning its expressiveness. Rococo isolations of wrist, neck and shoulder flow from a centre that is always held, always calm.

Pavement by Kyle Abraham.
‘The body is the message’: Pavement by Kyle Abraham. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

When the dancers run around the stage, as they often do, their limbs stream from that same still place. Perhaps that’s why much of the piece is set to baroque music. To Bach and Vivaldi, as well as to Sam Cooke and Jacques Brel.

In Pavement, the body is the message. That serene centre is the physical axis of the dance, and in a world of casual arrest, of gang warfare and crack cocaine, symbolises the inner place in which the embattled individual is spiritually impregnable. That baroque interplay of deep structure and ornate lyricism is a codex for survival, for remaining human and accessible to joy. Pavement is punctuated by a repeating scenario, in which the dancers are cuffed and laid face downwards. But each time, the cuffs fall away and the dancers rise up. You can confine the body, Abraham tells us, but not the spirit.

Star ratings (out of 5)
Men in Motion ★★
Kyle Abraham: Pavement ★★★★

Watch a trailer for Pavement


Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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