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London City Nights, 22 March 2016

4*

I don't know much about ballet, but I know what I like. And I like Ballet Black. Founded by Cassa Pancho, the company's goal is to grant black and Asian dancers an opportunity to shine. Sadly, black and Asian dancers are overlooked for major roles, Carlos Acosta perhaps putting it best: "There is this mentality, especially with directors, that a black ballerina in the middle of a flock of white swans would somehow alter the harmony."


Ballet Black not only tours shows that showcase their extraordinarily talented dancers but run the popular Ballet Black Junior School and an Associate Programme (with 400 members), in the hope that they can inspire a new generation of dancers.

I know all this because I attended an open rehearsal for the show. There I got to know the dancers as human beings rather than as unapproachable epitomes of physical perfection, got to see the construction of the choreography and heard explanations of pretty much everything they was going on on stage. This is invaluable for a neophyte like me - ballet's always seemed like a world where everyone assumes you know your arrière from your sissonne fermée (thanks Google).


After very much enjoying the rehearsal I was eager how the sketch I'd seen would translate to a full picture. Divided into three separate pieces, two short/one long, the show is constructed on the basis of 'something for everyone'. Indeed, each segment was markedly different from the others, offering a mixture of populist theatre and the avant-garde.


First up was Arthur Pita's Cristaux. I'd thought that Ballet Black would ease us in with something warm and personable, but Cristaux quickly proves anything but. Soundtracked by the jangling glockenspiel loops of Steve Reich's Drumming Part III, this is a coolly minimalist, almost mechanically precise demonstration of what the company is capable of.


Dancer Cira Robinson emerges in a crystal festooned tutu and tiara, the spotlight casting rays of light from it that gently discoball their way across the awed audience. It's an impressively attention grabbing introduction, only equalled by the moment when a gigantic crystalpendulum dramatically whooshes across the stage, apparently threatening to decapitate the dancers below. Robinson eventually intertwines with Mthuthuzeli November, the two mesmerisingly falling in and out of synchronisation - their motions occasionally giving the illusion that the two somehow physically meld.


As it ends it feels as if the audience collectively exhales - there's a general sense of "wow". Christopher Marney's To Begin, Begin has big shoes to fill. This is anchored by two elements, a large sheet of cobalt silk that weightlessly flutters around the stage and the magnetic stage presence of Sayaka Ichikawa. The two work through a series of eye-catching configurations; ranging from a costume to bondage to scenery. Contrasting the loose chaos of the silk with the precision of the dancers is effective, but lacks some of the oomph of the preceding piece.


After the internal is the main course: Christopher Hampson's Storyville. It tells the story of Nola (Cira Robinson) a young girl lost in New Orleans. She's a talented and natural dancer, but falls under the sway of salubrious nightclub owners Lulu and Mack. Gradually she sinks into a life of vice, the only ray of light in her life the love of an honest sailor.


Using a variety of Kurt Weill songs, there's a Cabaret-esque seedy tinge throughout, with Nola's plunge into the metaphorical (and later literal) underworld ably conveyed by smart choreography and a carefully chosen group of symbolic props. Highlights are when Nola's childhood doll is used to puppeteer her, voodoo style. As it's dropped Robinson perfectly and dramatically collapses onto the stage. Also impressive is a later scene of drunken hedonism, in which we see the interesting juxtaposition of drunken clumsiness and ballet, the dancers obviously relishing the challenge.


That said, though Storyville is an excellent showcase for the company and oozes style, I didn't feel half the emotional heft that I felt from the earlier conceptual pieces. The sustained focus on narrative didn't quite pay off, and despite a downer ending I didn't particularly feel the tang of tragedy that I'd anticipated.


Nitpicking? Perhaps. It's difficult for me to criticise performers this skilled - they left me thoroughly gobsmacked from start to finish. As promised, there's something for everyone here, though for me it's the boldly experimental modernist thrills of Cristaux that will stay with me the longest.