British Theatre Guide, 12th Oct 2021

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By David Cunningham
12th October, 2021

There are a number of unusual features in Then Or Now, the first half of Ballet Black’s double bill. The music is a fragile violin solo by Heinrich Franz von Biber. Will Tuckett’s choreography, although a single movement, is set against a background of poetry recordings which have the effect of breaking the dance into shorter pieces.

Tuckett’s choreography, however, does exactly what it says on the can. Then Or Now is classical ballet, highly disciplined and precise. The eight members of Ballet Black, act as soloists or in pairs even on occasion an entire troupe. It is a striking display of talent and precision.

The spoken poetry has themes of communities broken apart, whether by dissolving into selfish individualism or by political compulsion or violence. Tuckett’s choreography breaks the dance into short stories reflecting the poetic themes. As the poetry describes an interrogation and the joy of submitting to the freedom of guilt, a pair of dancers intimidate each other, pushing and shoving with a chair, or a quartet of dancers form a menacing group of thugs. Thankfully, the dance is not all grim. A joyful message of sending love has the troupe behaving like giddy children playing pass the parcel.

However, as both dance and poetry are abstract art forms, combining them is a challenge for the audience. It is not always easy to match the spoken words to the dancing. It is something of a relief, therefore, that the closing section comprises the troupe doing what they do best: simply dancing.

Choreographer Mthuthuzeli November takes a tricky approach to The Waiting Game. There are indications this is going to be a grim dance reflecting the mundanity of daily life. A countdown ticking away during the interval sets an uneasy mood and a somewhat intrusive voiceover makes clear the central character thinks really deep thoughts. Yet, gradually, hints arise of a sense of humour growing within the dance. When the central character begs for a ‘sign’, a literal one pops up. The move from sombre contemplation to full-on celebration by the time the conclusion is reached is both a surprise and pleasure.

An office drone is so deep in pondering the nature of life and death, he has become timid and trapped in inertia, unable to pack his suitcase or open the door. A group of demonic dancers push him on a journey where he meets, possibly, his alternate (female) self who clearly has no problem enjoying life and completes his quest in a celebration that combines spirituality with showbiz.

The second half of the double bill is a complete contrast to the first in which costumes were functional and plain. Peter Todd’s costumes for The Waiting Game balance a suited and booted central character against sinister / mischievous characters in costumes which merge clowns with formal wear.

November’s choreography builds from introspective, tightly controlled movements through a more relaxed and cheekier duet to an unexpected party. The closing sequence, combining spiritual, praise-the-Lord exultation with the razzmatazz of showbiz, is pure joy leaving the audience calling for more and audibly disappointed at the lack of an encore. Even the voiceover, which seems to be ramming home points in a heavy-handed fashion, turns into a simple but spot-on punchline.

Adding spoken word to dance is rarely a success and there are moments in the dance where the voiceover is a distraction. Yet this minor quibble cannot detract from the sheer quality of Ballet Black’s new double bill.