, 1st May 2012

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Review: Ballet Black at the Linbury Studio Theatre

Performance: 29 Feb – 7 March 2012
Reviewed by Graham Watts – Thursday 1 March 2012

My admiration for Cassa Pancho and her company knows no bounds. Embarking on its eleventh year, Ballet Black opened its 2012 season with four world premieres by “Premier League” choreographers with these – now traditional – curtain-raising performances at The Royal Opera House. This season at Covent Garden is longer than in previous years and the company has doubled its performance dates for the year, which will also see it venture overseas, in a first visit to Italy. It is a case of onwards and upwards for an ensemble that has survived without state subsidy and manages to combine resilience with inexorable progress.

The dance personnel have changed over the past year with a new senior artist – Sayaka Ichikawa – joining, alongside a new apprentice, Joseph Poulton. There’s nowhere to hide in a company of just seven dancers and both Poulton and the second-year apprentice, Kanika Carr, repay Pancho’s faith in their abilities with solid performances of remarkable maturity. I doubt that many dancers styled as an “apprentice” get to dance a solo on opening night but Carr was wholly unfazed in her vivacious, boisterous delivery of Jonathan Goddard’s Running Silent. Although it is a work designed to be performed by a dancer of either gender, Carr conjured very feminine, Pavlovian images of a skittish butterfly floating from bush to bush. Later, I read that Goddard’s inspiration had come from a source that could hardly be more different to the one I imagined, since he made the movement to demonstrate the tensions and the pressures that play on a body submerged in deep water! It’s a case of one man’s deep sea diver being another’s Cabbage White!

The Goddard solo sat between two works of a very different ilk in the first part of this mixed programme, starting with a skittish duet by The Royal Ballet’s Jonathan Watkins entitled Together Alone, which examined the intimacy of two-not-quite-becoming-one as a deep and meaningful relationship develops between Sarah Kundi and Jazmon Voss. They powered expressively through a complex range of emotions that brought them together and then break them apart. It reminded me of a very modern version of the Gershwin song ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’ (the one that goes “you like to-may-toes and I like to-mah-toes”). There was enough complex hand gyration to land a Jumbo Jet but not enough subtleties to sustain my interest through a long mid-section. The added collaborations of a recorded original score by Alex Baranowski, David Plater’s lighting designs and Yukiko Tsukamoto’s costumes (loved Kundi’s rich yellow underskirt) added lustre to the concept.

At the other end of this trio of appetisers stood Martin Lawrance’s Captured, a brave attempt to harness a work for two couples onto the dark and sinister moods within Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 11. Many shades of vulnerability spin through this quarter-hour of jarring dissonance and repetitive, obsessive behaviour. It was almost overwhelming in its foreboding sense of imminent tragedy, danced with a grim intensity by a quartet in which the doomed lyricism of Cira Robinson was especially memorable. It is a work that will repay many viewings.

A new ballet by Christopher Hampson, soon to become Artistic Director of Scottish Ballet, is a major event in the ballet world and the premiere of Storyville has been eagerly anticipated; and not without good reason. Hampson has made a chamber ballet in the mould of Manon and The 7 Deadly Sins, both easy comparisons to make given the setting of Louisiana and a soundtrack of Kurt Weill compositions, beginning with a remarkable recording of Lost in the Stars by Walter Huston that pinpointed an evocative flavour of early 20th Century Louisiana within the first few bars.

Hampson concentrates his narrative upon the tragic figure of Nola (the name a common derivative of N ew O rleans and L ouisian a) and her fall from grace under the spell of a real-life bordello-owner, Lulu White, and her fictitious associate, Mack. It is a role of a lifetime for Robinson in her heartbreaking journey from wide-eyed innocence to “Eyes-Wide-Shut” debauchery and one which she delivers powerfully with drama, pathos and beautiful, expressive dancing. Her central duet with the love interest (Damien Johnson) was a serious, absorbing and masterfully constructed pas de deux. Kundi was effective as the hard-as-nails, entrepreneurial Lulu but I found Voss to be uneasy in the tough guy role of Mack. It was almost as if he were wearing an ill-fitting suit and he and Johnson would have better suited an exchange of roles. This detail aside, Storyville was an excellent new ballet and topped off a very enjoyable evening. We have come to expect nothing less from this dynamic firm that consistently punches way above its weight.

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