Michael Nunn and William Trevitt have been thrilling audiences with their unique brand of contemporary dance for more than 20 years.
Known to thousands of fans as the Ballet Boyz since being featured in their documentary-style video diaries on Channel 4, their company George Piper Dances has been given the honour of being an associate to London's Sadler's Wells theatre.
The prestigious dance house commissioned Nunn and Trevitt to create an evening of new work, which has seen the birth of Naked - exploring the themes of love, betrayal and revenge.
As the Ballet Boyz break new ground, exposing themselves to criticism from the art press, Martin Barber spoke to Trevitt and Nunn as they prepared to tour the UK with Naked.
You've laid your reputations on the line with this one - why do it?
Michael: We're trying to get away from our format of having three short pieces of dance within our programmes and going for a longer narrative, a full evening's work.
What we haven't done since starting George Piper is to tell a story – which we were very used to doing with the Royal Ballet. That was one of the reasons we came up with this idea.
Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake are very defined. You could have taken the easier approach into narrative dance with another well-known story, but you've jumped in at the deep end and created something from scratch.
Billy: Really we wanted a challenge. The formula we'd been doing before seemed successful, but as soon we sense success, we want to change and try something new.
The question was - can we tell a story without the need to mime as you do in Sleeping Beauty, just purely by the relationship of two dancers dancing together? What does it say, can we persuade the audience to see it from our point of view throughout an evening's work?
We're at Sadler's Wells, right at the start of your UK tour. The critics haven't been too kind about Naked – but the audience seems to love it.
Michael: We sort of knew when we took this project on, it wasn't going to be a dance critic's cup of tea. It can't be just Billy and I up there performing tricks to loud music all the time. We need to progress and to move on and I think we've done that. We're happy with the show and I think our core audience are.
Billy: There are six really great dancers, dancing all night long - but it's more than that. It's about the theatrical and the emotional experience. Maybe that's what the critics have picked up on, that it's not just about dance, it's more about a drama.
Michael: I wouldn't even put it in a dance market. Maybe we've made a rod for our own back by premiering it at Sadler's Wells – a contemporary dance house in the UK. Maybe it's not a contemporary dance piece, maybe it's just a piece of theatre. You'll have to look at it and see what you think.
How naked is Naked? Are we talking on a physical or an emotional level?
|Monica Zamora and William Trevitt|
Michael: The show is called Naked, it's not called nude. This is what we try and tell people, the dancers are wearing clothes - most of the time.
That's not how you selling the show in its marketing.
Michael: There is nudity within the show, but I think the title Naked is more about the story being stripped back and about us bearing our own souls and putting a major work out there for the first time. It's all a bit scary and revealing I suppose.
Billy: We have a lot of imagery in the show of the kind of humiliation you might feel if you're betrayed. All your private feelings and moments exposed – it's something to do with that, why we've come up with the title Naked.
As Michael says, we have really put ourselves out there for criticism on this occasion. We've taken control of the entire show, so we've, to a certain extent, laid ourselves naked.
Michael: In everything we've done before, there's always been at least one safe bet within the show. There's one piece of our repertoire that's been successful elsewhere and you can fall back on that, but this – our audience needs to come with us, they need to make this journey. It's not something they would have seen before and they've just go to go with it.
Naked is a brave step for George Piper Dances. Your company is breaking new ground for both you and your audience.
Michael: It's a show, it's about entertainment. It's about people paying their money and seeing something different. We need that experience, we need to keep pushing things and we may be crossing over into theatre.
I don't think the theatre critics have reviewed the show – they wouldn't think about it as we normally do dance. In the same way that dance critics wouldn't review Billy Elliot – it's strange.
But it must be exciting, stepping into this hybrid world?
Billy: It's very exciting. It's obviously something completely new for us. Maybe, because we've been so engrossed in it for however long, we haven't noticed the transition as radically as the audience seems to have.
It's beginning to hit home that we've come up with something that is unlike anything we've done before. We've drawn on the elements and experience we have, but I think it's gone somewhere different.
I think it's a more accessible product than we've had before. It's not scary contemporary dance to un-listenable music – which contemporary dance can be perceived as being. It's more immediate and more personal, I think.
Were you concerned about how your fan base would react to this new direction for George Piper Dances?
Michael: Not really. The audience we have never know what to expect, so I don't think this was any surprise to them. In this show you do get lots of dance, lots of different music as you did with the other show – but there's a thread which runs through here which keeps your interest.
Billy: I think the piece is a lot more theatrical. There's lots of dancing in it and we've tried to incorporate quite a lot of our balletic training rather just abstract contemporary dance. There's a lot of line and form that you'd see in a classical ballet, I think it just has a more theatrical feel to the show.
Michael: We're still using film in the show, which is nothing new for us. But the way we're using film is very different this time.
Billy: We're using the video to create a living backdrop for the work to be against. In the past it's been something informative about the way our process works, but this isn't that at all.
It's made by Hugo Glendinning, who's a photographer and artist. It's something beautiful in its own right, but what it does for the piece is to provide a setting for it and a context.
Why did you feel the need to create a cinematic backdrop to the live action?
|William Trevitt and Monica Zamora|
Michael: We didn't want to mime, but to create a mood and a narrative. An easy way to do that is to use imagery. We didn't want Billy and Monica to have live sex on the stage, we'd probably get arrested! But you can symbolise that in film easily and very tastefully.
Billy: We wanted to use all the elements of the set, the lighting, the film, the music and costumes so the dance didn't have to do all the story-telling itself.
As you begin to blend theatre and dance genres, there is part of me that feels you're stepping into Matthew Bourne's playground. Have you spoken to him about this project?
Michael: He obviously works at the same theatre as us and we often talk, but we haven't spoken about this project. We're looking to collaborate with him in the future on different things. I'd be interested to see what he thinks.
Billy: I think his work is wonderful and audiences love it, but I think there's perhaps an element of the dance world that looks down their nose a little bit. All I see is something that audiences love and I can't see a problem with it.
Do you feel there's a social divide? Shows should be for either a dance or theatre audience and the two shouldn't mix.
Michael: Sure, I sense that immediately.
There were lots of people in on our first night that had never really seen us before. They'd read some of the editorial beforehand and just thought I want to go and have a look at this. I normally just see theatre, I don't see dance – but this sounds quite unusual, let's go and have a look. Which has been really good for us.
Billy: There are all sorts of things on this project that have been good for us in this project.
We've worked with a fantastic set designer, Bob Crowley, who's managed to fit us in between Mary Poppins and Disney's Tarzan. To be able to work with a piece of set like that and create this environment has been a great experience.
Michael: And a fresh eye, somebody like Bob who does big musicals and film. He doesn't do dance at all, but to come and work with us, to offer his ideas. He sat there on the first night and loved it. He watched it as a piece of theatre, not as a piece of dance and I think that's what I want people to do.
You've said the music has been a complicated part of the process. It's included work with the Norwich-based composer Richard English.
Michael: Yes, we've worked with Richard on projects before. He composed Torsion for us and he wrote parts of Critical Mass.
He had a very difficult brief this time because we were using some existing music from a Mexican composer called Mercof and we needed Richard to write us music that would sit well alongside it, yet change the dynamic of the show.
Knowing the way you work, that you like to tinker as you go along – how different will the show be at the end of the tour, from what it is now.
Michael: I think it will be stronger. The artists will grow, their roles will start to develop and I think the narrative will get stronger.
Billy: That's the one thing you can buy in. We just need to perform it a lot now and being in Norwich at the end of the run is the best place to be.
Naked, which contains scenes of an adult nature, is performed at the Norwich Theatre Royal from Friday 15 - Saturday 16 July, 2005. For more information call 01603 630000.
The UK tour of Naked also includes performances at:
Theatre Royal, Newcastle 21-22 June
Lighthouse, Poole 24-25 June
The Lowry, Salford 4-5 July
Oxford Playhouse 8-9 July
Grand Opera House, York 12-13 July
Birmingham Hippodrome 19-20 July
Photos by Hugo Glendinning