The Suit and Ingoma, Royal Opera House London
by Christine Lindey, June 18, 2019
Ballet Black’s South African double-bill demonstrates why they’re one of the most exciting dance companies around
Danced with verve and passion, classical ballet’s emotive power is joined with the joyous vivacity of popular dance to convey the ambiance of South Africa’s township life in this marvellous double bill from Ballet Black.
It starts with The Suit, based on the famous story by Can Themba and set in Sophiatown, where Philemon (Jose Alves) takes cruel revenge on his seemingly loving and attentive wife Matilda (Sayaka Ichikawa) when he catches her in flagrante.
She must constantly treat her lover’s discarded suit as their honoured guest and, relentlessly humiliated by the suit’s presence in their domestic and social life and distraught by Philemon’s stubborn rebuttals of her entreaties for forgiveness, she hangs herself.
Her husband’s punishment is the realisation that his intransigence has cost him his love and Cathy Marston’s choreography narrates this morality tale of possessive love with impressive clarity.
Ingoma, choreographed by the company’s South African dancer Mthuthuzeli November, tells of his native land’s 1946 strike by 600,000 miners when the police killed nine and injured 1,200.
Inspired by Gerard Sekoto’s rousing painting The Song of the Pick and ingoma — traditional African dance and song — the ballet’s collective interpretation of those genres, interspersed by lyrical balletic interludes, express heroism and solidarity.
The company may be small but it memorably expresses the power of massed collective action. Lit by their helmet lamps, with arms raised high and stretched the better to bend, the miners strike their picks in unison, as if against injustice.
Replacing gum boots with ballet shoes, November and Cira Robinson’s heart-stopping pas de deux to mournful cello music eloquently conveys the personal sorrows of strikers and families.
Women sway collectively, with hands fluttering like trapped birds, but that expression of vulnerability transmutes into angry rebellion, with raised fists clenched and pointe shoes hammering the ground.
But November’s truly unforgettable solo most epitomises resistance. To insistent rhythmic chanting, and with a Zulu warrior’s endurance and physical prowess, he relentlessly lunges into high kicks with raised arms, followed by stamps and jumps from squats, beating the ground with his feet, his body an explosive star.
Combining classical ballet’s precise perfection, grace and discipline with African culture’s dynamism, spontaneity and inventiveness, both ballets perfectly embody Ballet Black’s unique ethos.