Magazine, 25th March 2010

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Ballet Black – ‘Da Gamba’, ‘And Thereafter…’, ‘Human Revolution’, ‘Sextet’
March 2010 – London, Linbury
by Graham Watts

It’s such a rare treat to be able to review new ballet choreography, as opposed to revivals, repackaging or reconstructions of dance from yesteryear. Part of the huge charm of Ballet Black is the mission of Cassa Pancho (BB’s founder and artistic director) to stretch the envelope of contemporary ballet by commissioning new work whenever she can. Depending on whether you believe the Chairman’s programme note or the ROH2 Press Notice, this is either the company’s 5th or 6th spring season at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre (which, by the way, was packed to the rafters, a sure signal of this tiny company’s burgeoning popularity) and it brought with it the joy of four entirely new works.

These commissions were a tempting bag of sweets, mixing the frivolity of effervescent sherbet with the more deeply satisfying, long-lasting lemon drop: the sheer, exuberant fun of dance was evident throughout but stirred into the mix were tender oases of intimacy and romance and gentle periods of reflection. The options for choreographers are limited with a chamber company of just six dancers but there is rarely a dull or awkward moment in any of these world premieres. I left with a feeling that the choreographers had stretched the ensemble, while playing to the dancers’ individual strengths and that Ballet Black’s performers had risen supremely to the challenge.

The opening and closing works were the big sweets in the bag; made by choreographers now firmly in the premier(e) league; beginning with ’Da Gamba’ by Henri Oguike – whose eponymous Dance Co is taking a sabbatical, thus giving him time to set work on others; and concluding with an exercise in poetic, modern classicism by Christopher Hampson. In between these more substantial offerings came a quartet by the company’s Ballet Master, Raymond Chai, and a duet by Robert Hylton, a creator tagged with the hip-hop label, which could cover a multitude of dance forms but is not one generally associated with ballet.

The Hylton duet, danced with considerable meaning on the opening night by Cira Robinson and Jazmon Voss, was the initially unassuming vessel that suddenly erupted with fizz. The genesis of ’Human Revolution’ was apparently influenced by a Buddhist philosopher’s belief that self-motivation and inner human integrity will bring positive change to society and, unsurprisingly given this explanation, there’s considerable scope for improvisation. The sense of progressive growth and change within the two dancers, who rose to the challenge of self-expression to Hylton’s own electronic score with a remarkable fluidity and unbroken control, created an exhilarating and uplifting duet which certainly fulfilled the objective of transferring the individuals’ (the dancers’) positive energy to enhance the environment around them (the audience). At least, I interpreted the buzz around the bar in the interval as a significant indicator of success, rather than a measure of alcohol!

The Chai quartet – entitled ‘And Thereafter…’ also had some stand-out moments, especially in the first movement to Arvo Pärt’s ’Spiegel Im Spiegel’ – with its simple rising and falling conversation for piano and violin creating minimal music of an ethereal tranquillity. It’s becoming a much over-used composition because of its simple beauty but Chai’s choreography fitted intuitively into the bare, repetitive serenity of Pärt’s tiny masterpiece. Although a quartet, Damien Johnson was notable throughout and much of the work’s emotional resonance seemed to be conducted through his energy.

I’m generally a sap for both Oguike and Hampson. Although they come from different ends of the contemporary ballet spectrum, both are movement poets and choose music with an unerring synergy between eye and ear. Oguike has turned to 18th Century composers with considerable success before (Vivaldi in ’Little Red’ and Scarlatti in ’White Space’ and he revisits the era to take on Yo Yo Ma’s recording of Bach’s Solo Cello Suite in D Minor – with the eloquence of confidence in his own musical sophistication. Oguike is in a class of his own in the dance alchemy of mixing major academic music, a contemporary dance language and pointe shoes to create the modern ballet equivalent of gold. But such formulae take time to settle and Oguike’s ’Front Line’ work (including the signature ballet of that name) has been given an enriched, added lustre over years of refinement. ’Da Gamba’ still shows the newness of a very recent concoction and while Oguike’s masterful crocheting of bodies in a tight weave of patterns around a small stage is frequently clear, this is a work that still lacks cohesion in places and needs more stirring. Ballet Black’s six charismatic performers generally absorb everything thrown at them but the only jarring note here is the lack of unity and tightness which crept into their group sequences from time-to-time.

I loved Christopher Hampson’s ’Sextet’ and that is on the back of an initial disappointment that the anticipated 30s theme was not strongly evident. But Hampson needs nothing more than great music to inspire lyrical movement and his choice of extracts from Paul Hindemith’s ’Kammermusik No 1’ provided him with a perfect ‘motoring pulse’ for the six dancers. It’s also a sextet of movements, ranging from sporty athleticism at the beginning and a pulsating finale but hinged in the middle by a triptych of dance panels for two lovers (Robinson and Jade Hale-Christofi) which was a finely-balanced exercise in melting, romantic softness. What stopped it from stepping over into lush sentimentality was a powerful integrity of performance and Hampson’s ingenious use of dark, silent breaks to indicate the development of this love affair over time. The costume design was excellent throughout the programme (I loved Peter Todd’s short black velvet dresses and gun-metal grey lame tunics in ’Da Gamba’) and Bruce French’s neon-coloured short unitards made an effective contribution to ‘Sextet’.

There’s not a lot you should be able to do with a company of just six dancers but Cassa Pancho, her guest choreographers and their few collaborators have conjured up another enjoyable and satisfying evening to entertain and enthuse through the sheer joy of dance.