Then or Now and The Waiting Game Review
By Graham Watts
07 November 2021
I have been writing about Ballet Black for many years and, as the company enters its 19th season (although, thanks to the pandemic, this coincides with the 20th anniversary of its formation) it is a matter of sadness that the original vision of its founder, the irrepressible Cassa Pancho MBE, to change the visible landscape of classical ballet is still as necessary as ever. It is true that the diversity of the UK’s ballet companies has improved with several Black and Asian dancers now prominent (not least the former Ballet Black dancer, Sarah Kundi, at English National Ballet) but the numbers are still marginal. The Black dancers at any of our ballet companies can still be counted on the fingers of one hand.
That said, Ballet Black is now firmly part of the established landscape of classical ballet and there is certainly no need to justify the company’s existence as being the consolidated representation of Black and other ethnic minorities within the world of ballet. Year-on-year Ballet Black has surmounted and sustained a twin peak of success, firstly through Pancho’s exceptional commissioning skills, building a substantial repertoire of excellent work; and secondly through the unalloyed joy in the entertaining performances of its small ensemble.
And this programme was no different in two excellent new works given flow and flair by seven superb dancers. Will Tuckett’s Then or Now was the choreographer’s third work for the company and this familiarity shone through an outstanding chamber work that resonated with the spoken score of Adrienne Rich’s poetry selected from her 1995 anthology Dark Fields of The Republic (in recorded readings by Hafsah Bashir, Natasha Gordon and Michael Shaeffer). Rich’s work is fiercely feminist and anti-racist and her words promoting love while rejecting white privilege, homophobia and racism were paired with Daniel Pioro’s arrangement and recorded performance of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Passacaglia for solo violin. Composed in 1676, this final movement of Biber’s Rosary Sonatas is one of the earliest surviving pieces for an unaccompanied violin and, in Pioro’s emotive arrangement, the juxtaposition with Rich’s poetry presented an aural soundscape of brittle fragility that emphasised the sense of vulnerability, intimacy and survival that arose out of Tuckett’s choreography. The seven dancers responded with an elegant organic flow with their movement hooking onto the mood of the music and the meaning of particular words to provide an absorbing sense of atmospheric dance theatre.
Mthuthuzeli November’s choreographic debut, Ingoma, was an immense breakthrough earning public acclaim and nominations in both the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards and the Olivier Awards. A tough opener to build upon but November smashed it! The Waiting Game is an absolute delight throughout from the memorable opening image of Sayaka Ichikawa peering over the top of a lit doorframe. This perambulating doorway is an impactful design concept by Richard Bolton and Phil Cristodolou and – strikingly lit by David Plater – it is the central design device for November’s ballet, which is structured in three movements, the first of which has echoes of Tuckett’s earlier work since it is choreographed to November’s own recorded voiceover. This reminded me of Abba’s The Day Before You Came with November’s deadpan account of an average day in the character’s life (“I wake up. Brush my teeth. Open a door. Drink a cup of coffee…..”). However, the link to Samuel Beckett and his Theatre of the Absurd arrived when the text changes towards existentialist references of choice, risk, opening and closing doors, playing games and making memories.
It has been a long wait for this work for those who were able to watch the BBC 4 Danceworks episode about the making of The Waiting Game, which aired during the first 2020 lockdown. If memory serves correctly, November had not originally intended to dance in his ballet but circumstances determined a change of plan. A certain element of deconstruction is evident in imagining how the ballet would have been, if it had premiered last year, but November’s infectious and effervescent personality coupled with his creator’s knowledge of the intentions in the movement made this a memorable performance. When the other dancers finally persuade him through the door of opportunity and risk, November re-emerges in a shimmering, sequined jacket for an exhilarating showbiz finale to Etta James’ catchy Something’s Got A Hold Of Me, which continued into a danced curtain call that reflected a palpable sense of joy all around the Linbury Theatre.
Not only does the company have the dual talents of November as both performer and choreographer, but it also presents one of the outstanding ballerinas of this generation in its long-serving Senior Artist, Cira Robinson, who joined the company in 2008; and a word of praise also for Isabela Coracy, who brings charismatic joy to all that she does.