A Dream – photo Bill Cooper
We live in an interesting time of innovation in the world of dance, and Ballet Black are amongst the best of the innovators. This small company of just seven dancers re-interpret the language of dance and on Thursday evening at the Theatre Royal they gave us a sparkling and joyous display of their capabilities in two long pieces. Ballet Black is a professional ballet company for international dancers of black and Asian descent founded by Cassa Pancho. They aim to bring ballet to a more culturally diverse audience by celebrating black and Asian dancers in ballet.
The first act dance ‘The Suit’ is based on a story of life in a South African township written by Can Themba. It is an apparently simple but heart-rending tale of domestic life, love, infidelity and despair which sets no moral tone but allows each character to develop and engage with us. Philemon (Jose Alves) loves his partner Matilda (Sayaka Ichikawa) and lovingly prepares food for her before going off to work. While he is out her lover Simon (Mthuthuzeli November) joins her and they writhe in passion together, but Philemon has forgotten his briefcase and discovers them when he pops back from the bus stop. Simon jumps from a window in his underwear and runs away, but his shirt and suit remain and Philemon insists on the suit joining Matilda for their evening meal. The suit becomes emblematic of the rift in their relationship, and raises the question of whether Matilda can destroy it before it destroys her. The other dancers form a chorus and some clever props for the story as they become mirrors, sinks or other ephemera of household life.
The work is passionate, engaging and modern with a varied score recorded by the Kronos Quartet.
The second act sees the welcome return of the signature work of Ballet Black, ‘A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ choreographed by Arthur Pita. The dance is a loose interpretation of the Shakespeare tale of the adventures of a bewitched mix of ‘rude mechanicals’ and the fairy princess Titania. There is even a curious vignette featuring Salvador Dali. Key to proceedings is the startlingly coiffured Puck (Isabela Coracy) who weaves the magic and bends the players to his will, including making Titania (Cira Robinson) fall madly in love with the asses-head wearing Bottom (Mthuthuzeli November). There are many delightful sub-stories including some romantic encounters that escape the normal constraints of gender stereotyping set to a wonderful variety of appropriate tunes from Handel to Anthony and the Johnsons, including Eartha Kitt and Jeff Buckley along the way. Overall this is a truly magical depiction of one of the most popular scenes from Shakespeare’s imagination with lots of humour and pathos and a stunning blend of ballet and modern dance.
Ballet Black remind us powerfully that in these times of increasing division and intolerance talent knows no boundaries of race or gender. They show us that we need to challenge those who seek to thwart ambition on false grounds of race, gender or orientation and they help us to celebrate the joyous talent and skills of this group of dancers, choreographers and other creative souls from every corner of the World. Their enjoyment of their work is infectious and they gel together perfectly. My only regret is that this show was here for one night only, such is the complexity of the dance that a repeat visit would be essential to start to understand the full range of skills that this small group display. The company have been commissioned by The Barbican – I feel a trip to London may be due soon!
© Julian Swainson 2018