The Observer, 27 March 2016

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Reviewer: Luke Jennings

Ballet Black triple bill review – dash, daring and joie de vivre
Barbican, London
Ballet Black’s triple bill was graced with some sparkling performances and Britain’s most diverse ballet audience ever

Last week Ballet Black sold out the Barbican for two consecutive nights, offering a programme which, if occasionally lacking in finesse, was packed with dash, daring and joie de vivre. The joy was two-way, with an enthralled and largely non-white audience cheering the eight-strong ensemble to the echo.

The curtain rose on Arthur Pita’s Cristaux. Set to Steve Reich’s Drumming Part III, this is a two-hander for Cira Robinson and Mthuthuzeli November. Robinson is the staccato dancer par excellence, and Reich’s minimalist composition for glockenspiel and piccolo perfectly sets off her sharply incised line, while designer Yann Seabra costumes her in a tutu dressed with Swarovski crystals. The result dazzles, with Robinson’s every move sending pinpoints of light skittering around the stage. She looks as if she’s in a Ballets Russes fantasia, an impression heightened by Pita’s tautly rhythmic choreography, which includes automaton-like moves and a sinuous plaiting of arms. We’re reminded, fleetingly, of Scheherazade, and the Columbine Doll in The Nutcracker. November, mutedly costumed, partners assiduously and with appropriate awe.

Christopher Marney’s To Begin, Begin, set to music by Dustin O’Halloran, is not so much crystalline as dusted with icing sugar. A series of abstract and sentimentally inclined dances for a cast of six, it features a large square of blue silk which functions variously as canopy, wave and invisibility cloak. Jacob Wye partners Sayaka Ichikawa, his unforced line neatly complementing her pliant femininity, and Kanika Carr is spun and whirled with courtly formality by Joshua Harriette. Things gather pace with the appearance of Damien Johnson and the svelte Isabela Coracy. Johnson is as charming as the day is long, and his smile could power the entire Barbican complex. But for me, although I was surrounded by people who loved the piece, even Johnson’s presence didn’t make up for over-contrived choreography and a saccharine score.

Christopher Hampson’s Storyville, a southern states Threepenny Opera set to music by Kurt Weill, brings the evening to a fine and touching conclusion. Robinson is Nola, a virtuous young country girl corrupted by the snares and traps of the New Orleans dance hall where she works, and Johnson the handsome sailor who loves her. The tale unfolds with melancholy inevitability. Robinson dances up a storm, and she and Johnson are terrific together. As the calculating dance hall proprietor, Ichikawa is as slinky as she is dead-eyed, and Harriette is broodingly sinister as Mack, her pimp and partner. There’s also a fine cameo turn by Wye and November as debonair, cigar-chomping playboys. Hampson choreographs with a light touch and an experienced eye.

Technically and balletically speaking, this is not a flawless evening. But as an event, it will be long remembered. There are arguments for and against the existence of a specifically non-white ballet company, but there can be no argument about Ballet Black director Cassa Pancho’s achievement in filling a major London venue with what must be the most diverse audience in the history of British ballet. Last Friday felt different. It felt significant. It felt like change.