Ballet Black double bill, Barbican, review: Wit and joyful energy show the way for the future of dance
An exuberant 20th-anniversary show presented two contrasting premieres, one telling the company’s own story
By Marianka Swain
March 31, 2022
Ballet Black marks its 20th anniversary in exuberant fashion with a new work by founder Cassa Pancho, Say It Loud, telling the company’s story. It’s a rich, witty piece with thoughtful music choices, which incorporates real social media comments and audience feedback in a voice-over.
Some of this is insulting or confrontational – such as labelling Ballet Black “reverse racism”, or asking, why focus on brown pointe shoes rather than knife crime? But there is also heartfelt thanks for breaking down barriers and showing us the future of dance. It demonstrates the extra pressure that the company is under: not just to create, but to represent.
In the first of seven sections, we see the company coming together, an insistent Steve Reich score adding propulsion to their fast and furious pirouettes.
While dodging searchlights, Mthuthuzeli November then excels in a solo set to Flowdan’s “Welcome To London”, expressing the ambivalence of being a black man in the capital.
Provocative voice-over (“Can we eat a slice of your trauma?” – sparked by Pancho’s frustration at being asked to dish up work about suffering, especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter) precedes a pointed piece set to Lord Kitchener’s calypso protest song, “If You’re Brown”.
The final chapters are purely joyful: a jubilant trio dancing to “What a Wonderful World” (led by the powerful Isabela Coracy), a heavenly pas de deux with Etta James’s “At Last”, and a grooving group number backed by the Soweto Gospel Choir incorporating social dances such as the Electric Slide.
Another of the comments made about the company is that no two of its ballets are ever the same. That’s borne out by the second premiere in this double bill: South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma’s Black Sun, which connects us to ancestral stories. It’s performed with enormous physical commitment, especially by Cira Robinson, Rosanna Lindsey and November.
A section where the dancers stomp, drum on buckets and cry out has primal force, and David Plater’s bold shafts of light add visual flair. But it’s conceptually opaque: one to admire rather than love.
Nevertheless, Ballet Black makes a thoroughly convincing case that this is indeed the future of dance – and that this should be cause for celebration