As the audience filed into the Ahmanson theater last weekend, pop music filled the venue, creating a leisurely movie theatre atmosphere. “Are we human, or are we dancers” may as well have been the title of the program.

The 10 men ensemble from London brought in fresh wind, in the form of two pieces by, though largely unknown in Southern California, leading internationally acclaimed british choreographers Liam Scarlett and Russell Maliphant.

© Panos
© Panos
Liam Scarlett’s Serpent was first on bill. Set to music by Max Richter, the piece is inspired by the predatory movement of reptiles. Michael Hull’s lighting design sets the scene in colors of blue and beige, carving out the musculature of the bare chested cast, clad only in tan tights. The constant potential of danger, the possibility of attack is apparent in the dancers' bodies. Intense eye contat creates spatial tension and cast members become opponents. The ready-to-attack stance is present in their bodies, even when they simply walk. The movement, initiating in the dancers’ backs, is continuous and intricately intertwined in duets. The dancers breeze through the demanding piece, especially the meticulous unison phrases. Stillness is rare, but gratifying, especially since Richter’s score, taken from the album Memoryhouse is very driving and sometimes overpowering. Though the nature of the piece is abstract, narrative unfolds inevitably in the many duets and solos. Here, the dancers morph into humans, become individuals as they break away from the anonymity of the group – a tender touch of the face carries meaning of compassion and camaraderie. Serpent must have posed a challenge for Scarlett who usually works within the realm of classical ballet: the absence of female dancers has him explore the technical and beautiful singularity of male duets. At one point, most have their backs turned – spines undulating, one can see every muscle fiber actively moving, sliding over bone like the title-giving animal slithers over stone.

Maliphant’s Fallen shows different skills in the company, and expands on the overarching motive of continuous movement, of restlessness and fight. Dressed in olive green military-style wear, the men start off in two circles, revolving around one another, the percussive and dynamic Armand Amar score once again driving the action and keeping the suspense throughout. The stage is stripped bare – the brick walls expose some of the character of the nearly 50-year old Ahmanson Theatre. The lighting paints the scene and the mens' bodies green, and deep amber at times. The sense of danger in this piece is less metaphorical than in Scarletts’ – the men leap into each other’s arms and laps and the partnering becomes more and more risky as the piece reaches a crescendo. Maliphant works with spotlights – limbs come in and out of focus. The men use each other as leverage to launch and take flight for a split second, moments of delayed fall are especially tense. Andrea Carruccio has brief, stand out solo moments, which offer relief from the action – his supple movement quality, articulate footwork and focus draw the audience in. He almost takes on the role of the storyteller, interspersing moments of calm in an otherwise action-filled second act. The piece closes with the image of the two circles – and it seems as if no time has passed at all. As the lights came up on this evening’s show, the audience almost immediately jumped to its feet to offer a standing ovation for this outstanding show.

© Panos
© Panos
These “Boyz” are clearly men. Are they human or are they dancers? They’re human dancers – effort isn’t disguised as lightness here. There’s a sense of compassion and trust that oozes off the stage but there is not a moment of doubt that they’re beautifully trained dancers, especially home in the grounded, floor work oriented sections of the two pieces. It’s captivating to see an eclectic ensemble challenging the perception of dance as essentially a female focused art in such a compelling way. Vulnerability comes across as the particular strength of this group. By bringing this concept of an all male company presenting versatile British repertory, the BalletBoyz sent a kind but strong reminder that half a world away beats the heart of contemporary dance.