Say It Loud/Black Sun Review
Culture Writer Youssra Al-Hajji reviews Ballet Black and finds the performance to be a simple and powerful message that inspires and raises the importance of all Black and Asian ballet dancers.
6th October 2022
Why do we love ballet?
Because ballet loves us back.
This simple and powerful message was broadcast as a motivation to all aspiring Black and Asian ballet dancers out there, and throughout its twenty years of performance, Ballet Black has never failed to awe and inspire its audience. Its showcase at the Rep this year was certainly no different.
Let me set the scene for you: a simple black coloured stage. No set, no large pieces that had to be flown in, no fancy backdrop. Just a simple black stage, eight talented ballet dancers that danced with passion and shared beliefs in the empowerment of people of Black and Asian descent in the world of ballet. And together they bought that stage to life.
Split into two, the first ballet is Say It Loud, choreographed by the founder and artistic director of the Black Ballet, Cassa Pancho. It’s a revealing and insightful piece that portrays the company’s struggle to grow and assert itself in the ballet world due to the challenges they faced as a Black company. The use of verbatim through the audio recordings of true comments and posts surrounding people’s thoughts on the company initially was extremely powerful and created a storyline as we followed Black Ballet’s growth and development in response to the corresponding feedback and doubts they faced through the years. Each ballet dancer was given time on the stage alone and together to portray different aspects of the company’s journey as mirrored by their own experiences around racial stereotypes and prejudices.
Certainly, the dancer who stole the show was Mthuthuzeli November, whose solo moment on stage was an effortless and yet expressively unconventional brilliant ballet dance to the song ‘Welcome to London’. The emotions of anger, unrest and determination he conveyed through his cathartic dance in response to the discriminatory stereotypes surrounding people of colour were enhanced by the simple black and white lighting. It created stark monochromatic contrasts across the stage that symbolised to the audience the struggle faced by the Black Ballet to overcome the divided community of ballet; it raised awareness of the importance of people of colour receiving the same support and understanding in ballet, a point emphasised by the mention of the importance of brown pointe shoes being available.
The music used here was intense and as thought provoking as the audio used, and throughout Say It Loud, it was exciting but also grounding to hear celebrated singers like Louis Armstrong and Etta James being used as ballet music, to convey a part of the company’s progression to where it is today.
The second ballet performed was Black Sun, choreographed by South African choreographer Gregory Maqomer. The juxtaposition between this second piece and the more modern first piece was simply shocking. While Say It Loud introduced and acquainted the audience with the powerful story and inspiration behind Ballet Black, the performance of Black Sun was a mesmerising display of the dancers incredible talents and the raw energy and passion that forms their love for ballet, all intertwined with a slippery tale of origin and what it means to return to ancestral roots and the power of the groups unity. This second piece was more complex to follow in terms of storyline, but the unfiltered and entrancing lyricism of the dancer’s emboldened expression in their dance swept me away in a thrill of emotions.
Altogether, Ballet Black both opened my eyes to the challenges people of colour face in the word of ballet, as well as entertained and engrossed me in the seemingly unrestrained passion of its dancers. It is most certainly an experience, an inspiration, and at its core an important representation in ballet.
Why do we love ballet?
Because it loves us back.
No words could be truer, and no words could possibly convey the elegance and complexity of the performances of Ballet Black. I guess you’ll just have to go and see!