Evening Standard, 2nd March 2012

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Short Dance Works/Ballet Black – review

by Clifford Bishop – 02 March 2012

Now over ten years old, Ballet Black showcases four energetic and inspired new dances at the Royal opera House

Six decades after George Balanchine first cast the black dancer Arthur Mitchell opposite a white ballerina, and in the process gave his Agon an erotic charge that shocked New York, the relationship between black bodies and ballet audiences is still a vexed one. Here we enthuse over Cubans, and Mitchell’s own Dance Theatre of Harlem, but beyond that we don’t seem convinced.

Cassa Pancho set up Ballet Black 11 years ago to tackle these prejudices, and has obviously made progress. Becoming a Royal Opera House Associate Company was a coup, and opening a season with four newly commissioned dances is remarkable for such a small troupe — it works out at more than half a ballet each.

Mystifyingly, though, the company is only scheduled for 25 performances this year. Two seasons ago they were struggling to reach double figures — understandable if Ballet Black were just a piece of PC tokenism but Pancho has developed a professional, accomplished outfit, and in Damien Johnson and Cira Robinson she has a couple whose charisma and sex appeal should be able to draw crowds to any stage in the country.

In Martin Lawrance’s Captured their bodies tangle around and slash across one another as Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 11 pulls them into its own nervous, protean mood changes. Manipulated by another couple (Joseph Poulton and the glaring Sayaka Ichikawa) they accuse, renounce, grovel before and fly back to each other, buoyed on an ebb and flow of muscular emotion that is becoming Lawrance’s hallmark.

Johnson and Robinson are also lovers in Christopher Hampson’s Storyville but this time she is the star as Nola, an innocent come to New Orleans with eyes as wide as oyster shells. Hampson tells a familiar story of corruption and decline, aided by Kurt Weill songs and a beautifully calibrated intimation, from Robinson, of a light slowly going out inside.

Of the other two dances, Jonathan Watkins’s Together Alone is an overly-mannered mating ritual for narcissists, and Jonathan Goddard’s Running Silent appears to be a doomed attempt to make Kanika Carr impersonate a drowning submarine.

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