In 2001 Billy Trevitt and Michael Nunn left the Royal Ballet to found their own all-male dance company. After years of theatre hopping and a stay at Sadler’s Wells, the group is finally moving into a new home in Kingston. Lucy Johnston hears their story
The main joy of being an interviewer, aside from meeting so many curious minds, is the surprising locations I find myself in.
And thus it is, one chilly morning, I find myself down an apparently sleepy street behind Kingston station. The area was once home to factories and some of the splendid original industrial buildings are still standing, scattered between newer housing developments.
Number 52 is one such building, tucked between a larger brick warehouse and modern terraced dwellings. After its life as part of the local aircraft industry, it was used as a laundry for local hotels before falling dormant.
It is soon to be injected with new life, but for now it is wrapped in plywood hoarding, and there appears to be little sign of activity, and no door either. As I approach I wonder how I’m going to make myself known, when I spot a chap balancing on the opposite pavement curb, gazing up at the façade.
Woolly hat pulled down low over his eyebrows, and clutching a large paper coffee cup, I can’t see enough of his face to quite recognise him, but his poise tells me it must be Billy (William) Trevitt, who I’ve arranged to meet for a tour. I call out and he bounds gracefully across the road, feet hardly seeming to touch down.
“Welcome, welcome,” he bids enthusiastically, “thanks so much for coming down to see our new home.”
Billy is one half of BalletBoyz, arguably the most notable British dance partnership of the last decade. A former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, Billy left in 2001 along with his friend and equally renowned fellow principal Michael Nunn, to set up their own groundbreaking dance company – with the aim of making contemporary dance more accessible and appealing to audiences outside the walls of the Royal Opera House.
Through introducing multimedia effects to their performances, sharing short docu films of their rehearsals, and banishing the stereotypical preconception of male dancers as flouncy and almost certainly gay, the pair have challenged and changed perceptions of contemporary dance, and ushered in a new audience.
And now, after a decade of astounding success – on stage, commissioning an impressive repertoire of new choreography, and with regular appearances on TV – they are finally moving into a permanent studio complex of their own in Kingston.
“It feels like we’ve grown up all over again!” Billy laughs, as I turn to properly take in the building.
“We’ve come so far in the last ten years, and learned so much, it’s incredible to have finally got to the stage where we can invest in our own home. What an extraordinary journey we are on!”
BalletBoyz have been resident at Sadlers Wells for the last seven years, but the expense of studio hire there had meant this high-profile connection was coupled with a nomadic existence of moving from one rehearsal space to another around London. This was proving increasingly unproductive, so Billy and Michael had been on the lookout for a solution.
“We both live near here, and were walking down this street one day when we spotted this building. I saw that it was empty and we just suddenly thought – wow, this would make a fantastic permanent home!”
In trademark dynamic style, they went away and managed to secure the lease, and 18 months later are about to move in. It took far more than the “lick of paint” they had imagined; in reality requiring full architectural renovation and substantial investment.
“So, shall we go in?” Billy asks excitedly, hopping from foot to foot with anticipation (or possibly just from the cold, but it gave a good impression). A door swings open, Narnia-like, to reveal a bustling parallel world inside.
Workmen are swarming everywhere as I trail after Billy, as he leaps lightly over piles of two-by-four and sawdust, and up a banister-less staircase.
“So, this is going to be the main rehearsal room,” Billy gestures, now teetering precariously on the edge of a new mezzanine, overlooking a light and airy double-height space, with huge skylights in the pitched roof.
Another recent step in their ‘growing up’ journey has been for Billy and Michael to finally step back from the spotlight and dancing, to instead nurture a new generation of male dancers – through their recent national search for BalletBoyz The Talent. Their new tour The Talent 2013, with a refreshed line-up of dancers, will set off around the UK in the spring. And Kingston is where they will be adding the final touches.
“This platform will be for the dancers to relax, or for guests to come and watch rehearsals. We’re going to put in full stage lighting too – it will make such a difference to be able to rehearse as if we’re on stage. And the builders have just poured a new concrete base for the floor this week too,” Billy continues, his face animated, “to make sure it’s completely flat for fitting the wooden sprung floor. It’s funny, I’ve danced on sprung floors my whole career but I never imagined I would one day be enjoying spending time learning about what it actually takes to lay one!”
It is this desire to understand how things work, and be personally involved, that really sets Billy and Michael apart in everything they do. It’s been the case since they set up BalletBoyz, when, as well as dancing, they forged an early path in the now popular art of filming for dance, teaching themselves editing.
“We’ve always been inquisitive by nature, and if we don’t know how to make or do something that we need for a project, we just set about learning. In the early days of BalletBoyz we didn’t have a choice because we didn’t have any money to pay anyone to help us! But we also like the challenge and the sense of satisfaction in making things ourselves.”
The energy they are dedicating to this project is boundless, and it’s paying off – the results are seriously impressive.
As Billy continues to guide me around the building – first pointing out the future location of a large plasma screen, to enable them to do groundbreaking video link-ups from the rehearsal room, and next the room where they will continue to do their own film editing – I comment that the building already has a warm, positive atmosphere.
“Oh good, well, I really hope it will keep that!” he looks pleased. “We really want it to be a place filled with positive energy. Michael and I have always got on really well and had this good working relationship. It would be wonderful if we can pass that attitude to the next generation of BalletBoyz, through the way we run this place.”
Beyond bringing this incredible dream to life is, of course, the final piece in the package – making the project pay. But in this they have a vision, too. The two rehearsal rooms will be hired out to other dance groups and for fitness classes and there are plans also afoot to do more film work and educational projects. The duo seem confident that these channels of income will keep them ticking along.
On this positive note I leave Billy to attend a meeting, before he has to dash off up to Dalston to join rehearsals for their new tour. I step back out of the Narnia door, and onto the street, but with an added spring in my step. The concept of men in dance just got more exciting.
Balletboyz is showing at The Rose Theatre on June 22