Say It Loud/Black Sun Review
By Grace Richardson
October 23, 2022
Ballet Black ‘Say it Loud’ at the Linbury Theatre
Following its premiere earlier this year, Ballet Black brings its celebratory twentieth-anniversary double bill to the Royal Opera House Linbury Theatre. Say It Loud opens the show, an autobiographical work about the twenty-year history of the company choreographed and directed by Ballet Black’s Founder and Artistic Director, Cassa Pancho MBE along with the company’s artists. This is followed by a new ballet from acclaimed South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma, Black Sun.
When Pancho founded Ballet Black in 2001, no women of colour were performing in any of the UK’s ballet companies and her aim was to redress this. Her ultimate goal is to make the company redundant by driving change in the ballet world to create diversity both on stage and behind the curtain. Whilst she initially hoped that this could be accomplished within twenty years, Pancho now sees that it will take at least another twenty to get there.
Say It Loud begins with negative commentary about Ballet Black: voices ask why the company is necessary, and why there isn’t a ‘ballet white’ (the dancers respond especially strongly to that statement). We don’t dwell for long on the ‘haters’ before diving into a joyful half-hour. The company clearly doesn’t want to hide or conceal the adversity it has faced and continues to face, indeed this work can be seen as a direct response to that criticism: the artists clearly showing that they are still here and thriving.
The choreography defies any attempt at categorisation: split into seven chapters each with a distinct character and style from the lighthearted and comical to poignant and introspective. José Alves and Cira Robinson deliver a lovely pas de deux accompanied by Etta James’s At Last, which is in stark contrast to Mthuthuzeli November’s solo backed by Flowdan’s gritty Welcome to London rap.
Indeed the score, composed by Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante, starts very minimally with spoken word and haunting piano, before plunging into rap, gospel, and calypso with feedback about the company entwined throughout.
During the bows, the dancers without exception have huge smiles on their faces: it is clear they have enjoyed their performances and their part in choreographing this piece.
The second ballet Black Sun is energetic and powerful, drawing from the history of South Africa. Asante’s score features expressive drumming, and the rigorous choreography focuses on the individuality of the artists with an almost improvised style and loose structure.
Early on, the female dancers slap their thighs whilst on pointe – a simple gesture that illustrates their physical strength but definitely not something I’ve seen before. There are other little touches, including one dancer wearing his glasses and not a pair of tights in sight, that illustrate just how different Ballet Black is from other companies.
The female artists shine in this second work: during Isabela Coracy’s solo, she lets her braids down to become part of the choreography, spinning around her and slapping her skin as she moves.
The climax is reached as the dancers take off their ballet shoes and take up improvised drums, chanting and stamping unaccompanied. Native South African dancer November leads the company in call and response as Cira Robinson bourées as if possessed, writhing around under warm, almost sandy lighting from David Plater.
To those who still question whether Ballet Black is necessary, perhaps consider the 62 new productions that ballet black has commissioned in its 20 years. Or the infamous ballet shoe collaboration with Freed in 2017 that has resulted in inclusive colours of pointe shoes for the first time (proudly on display this evening). Arguably, even the number of non-white dancers in the Royal Ballet in 2022 compared to 2002 is directly correlated with Pancho’s proven track record as a force for change on the British ballet scene.
October marks Black History Month and seems an apt time to reflect on how far Ballet Black has come since its inception twenty years ago. It’s worth mentioning, however, that it also seems like the perfect opportunity to open Ballet Black up to a larger audience via the main stage, a marker perhaps of how much the ballet world still needs to change.
One of the comments in Say it Loud states that both the best and the most challenging thing about Ballet Black is that no production is ever the same. I’m excited to see what’s next.