, 17th April 2009

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Ballet Black
Hinterland, Pendulum, Kinderszenen, Depouillement
Cambridge, Arts Theatre
15 March 2009

I think I saw Ballet Black’s first two programmes way back in 2002 and 2003 and was very impressed. It was nothing particularly to do with technical prowess or known choreographers or great costumes and lighting etc – all of which were at something of a premium – and everything to do with a glorious infectious attitude to dance, rhythm and moving the audience. Alvin Ailey and Dance Theatre of Harlem can induce similar feelings but it was Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black, with little money and its fresh London roots that gave me reasons to be cheerful for new things in ballet and dance. And good things don’t stay hidden, particularly with the gusto of somebody like Pancho behind them, and it’s been a pleasure to see the company, now based at the Royal Opera House, develop and spread its wings – to much critical acclaim too. I saw the last date of the company’s spring 2009 programme, at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. Like the earlier Opera House Linbury dates it was full – the company is a great draw, were very well received, and I hope they get to tour more extensively.

The wonderful news is that the quality of dancers in the company is now much stronger and the commitment to new work is pretty much unparallelled in the UK. Three of this year’s pieces were new works by known choreographers and the last piece a new commission of two years ago. The ‘old’ work opened – Hinterland by Liam Scarlett (the young Royal Ballet choreographer) to a percussive piano score by Shostakovitch that displays all 6 dancers in the company to advantage as it canters along its neo classical way. Martin Lawrence, the ex-Richard Alston dancer, used Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music for a ‘fight you, love you’, duet that intrigues. Strongly down-lit, like much of the evening’s lighting, the athletic and hyper-supple Sarah Kundi and Jazmon Voss created a strong impression in work where Lawrence did a good job of fusing his contemporary background with the dancers’ ballet roots. Kinderszenen by Antonia Franceschi was again for the whole company but her NYCB background here delivered a tough work that never really sold what it was about, nice though it was to see some touches of humanity creeping in. William Tuckett was the headline choreographer and after years of tending to explore dramatic work in the Royal Opera House his Depouillement (economy of means) represents a welcome return to pure dance. To Ravel’s paired-back and yet beefy Sonata for violin and cello the four sections have lots of contrasts for the six dancers while all bound together with a passionate and relentless drive. This and the Lawrence are the big hits of the evening.

While all four pieces had good individual merit, some much more, they were all based on tough, if strong, music and a neo-classical approach which in bulk can come over as rather austere. And I’m not sure if any of them is really defining of Ballet Black – I could see them all working well on Chamber companies with good dancers. So while I very much applaud such a bold commissioning policy – yes, yes, yes! – I also look back to the early years and more varied programming, mixing in some crowd pleasers, that also seemed to define the embryonic company better. I hope Ballet Black, from their present much stronger position, fold back in some of that strut and smile and wow, and they could do worse than resurrect Pancho’s own The Boogaloo Room to some Count Basie jazz. I was certainly deeply impressed at the time: “The dazzle from the company as they enjoyed themselves was infectious and it somehow underlined the worth of the whole endeavour. There is a different, and unpretentious, bubbly attitude here and it’s good.”