, 6th March 2017

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Ballet Black cheerfully acknowledges its aim is to make itself redundant – when greater numbers of black and Asian dancers are offered “inspiring opportunities in classical ballet” from the big dance companies, Black Ballet can bow out gracefully.

Meanwhile, 16 years in, this small but determined company is pulling in some excellent choreographers to make work on its dancers. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa has been commissioned by English National Ballet, New York City Ballet and Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, to name but three, and here provides Ballet Black with its best piece of the night.

Red Riding Hood is an exuberant take on the classic fairy tale that nods to vaudeville and panto while keeping a decidedly dark edge. The choreography is juicy, irreverent and thrillingly dynamic, spinning Red Riding Hood (Cira Robinson) through a tough coming of age story.

The cautious constraining environment provided by her family (ingeniously represented by a picture frame round a mocked-up family portrait) is cast aside by our heroine when she encounters the Wolf – a strutting, wiggling, undulating seduction machine, played superbly by Mthuthuzeli November, whose excessively long rope tail is put to all manner of use. But Red Riding Hood’s grappling with her own sexuality has painful consequences.

The quirky inventiveness of Lopez Ochoa’s vision – encapsulated in a delightfully odd soundtrack of French popular song – is embraced by all the dancers, whether playing one of the Wolf’s feral friends bouncing and crouching round the stage, or larking about as Granny attempting to escape en pointe. Robinson and November are beautifully matched and sizzle in their duets. If the rather dense, confusing symbolism of the last segment could be unpacked a bit so the story can breathe, this would be an unalloyed delight.

The evening’s opener, Michael Corder’s House of Dreams, is less compelling – an airy set of classical compositions to Debussy piano pieces that flits between two couples, and feels elegant but rather too modest in its ambitions.

But Martin Lawrance’s Captured, revived from 2012, and also for four dancers, is a much meatier piece. Angular, fast and exacting choreography builds a rich sense of narrative possibility from the couples’ edgy encounters, framed by the stabbing violins of Shostakovich’s string quartet No 11. The dancers make strong shapes, slashing the air with their limbs as their duets speak of antagonisms, confrontations, shifting alliances and deceptions. Robinson and November again stand out – his high leaps making him a dominant presence on stage.