Seeing Dance, 13th May 2019

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Taut drama: Ballet Black in The Suit and Ingoma

Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London
May 13, 2019 by David Mead

Making a welcome return to the newly refurbished Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House, Ballet Black opened their double-bill with The Suit, Cathy Marston’s taut drama about a collapsing marriage inspired by Can Themba’s short story.

Marston turns to stylised gesture as José Alves as Philemon gets up. A fluttering hand suggests an alarm clock, another indicates shaving. A brief but loving duet with Sayaka Ichikawa, his wife, Matilda, suggests all is happiness. When he’s left for work, Ichikawa stretches sensuously; as we are to quickly discover, not thinking of the man who has just left, but of Mthuthuzeli November’s Simon, who arrives soon after.

At home, the heat rises quickly in a dance full of sexual arousal and great chemistry, illustrated perfectly by the way she nudges down his trousers with a leg. The way Marston juxtaposes the two sides of the marriage, Philemon happily going about his business at normal speed, the goings-on back home in slow-motion, somehow ramps up the tension. You don’t need to programme note to know she is going to get found out, and she does.

Ichikawa was compelling as Matilda. She has an incredibly dramatic face, but especially expressive eyes. They drill right into you. It’s like they open a channel right into her mind. She leaves you in no doubt what her Matilda is thinking; and to say she was horror-struck and sick to the core would be an understatement after Philemon returned home unexpectedly.

Although he escapes and is never seen again, Simon leaves his suit behind, which Philemon, drilling home his wife’s shame, insists on treating as an honoured guest. It sits at the dinner table. It gets taken when they go to the park, where it even gets to cleverly join in the ensemble dances, manipulated by the Greek chorus that is the rest of the cast and effectively becoming an extra dancer.

Matilda clearly wants a way back. There is a desperation in her duets with the graceful Alves; and there are hints that the marriage might stand a chance of recovery but there’s always a tense-ness, but just when you think they’ve really made up, bang! The suit comes back and the humiliation returns. Driven by guilt and her husband’s treatment, she hangs herself. It is a very powerful moment, very dramatic, the silence that follows bringing home the moment even more.

The 1950s South African township setting of the story is emphasised via references to popular social dances of the time. As always, music by the Kronos Quartet is urgent and helps drive the story on.

Mthuthuzeli November’s Ingoma starts slowly. In miners’ gear and semi-darkness, the cast spread buckets of dirt (doubling as coal dust) onto the floor. The tension is ramped up by the echoey sound of water dropping onto a cavern floor heard in the score.

What follows considers the personal losses and pain caused by the dark episode in South Africa’s history that was the 1946 miners’ strike. It was eventually suppressed by brutal police action that officially resulted in 1,248 injuries and nine deaths (a figure never officially verified and almost certainly a significant underestimate).

Yann Seabra’s grimy costumes evoke time and place perfectly. Peter Johnson’s largely drum and strings soundtrack is added to effectively by a recital of the Lord’s Prayer in Xhosa, and a poem, Blue Head, by South African dancer Asisipho Ndlovu Malunga.

While Ingoma could do with a little tightening of focus at times, it remains a fine first choreography for the company from November. His dance has an energy even in its quieter moments. There is much use of clenched fists, sometimes held high, often pumping, as a sign of anger and resistance. The dancers’ pointe shoes seem to give out a similar defiant message as they push against the floor.

The ensemble dances are nicely constructed but it’s in the duets and solos that the work is at its best. A pas de deux for Cira Robinson and November includes some super partnering as he frequently wraps her around his back. I also found the long sequences where their foreheads stayed in contact, eyes incredibly close, very moving. But that was nothing to Robinson’s later grief-stricken solo after she has lost her loved-one, a symbolic representation of all who lost someone as much as a demonstration of personal sorrow. Her anguish and new vulnerability were laid bare as the chorus punched out a never-ending rhythm behind.

It ends with a sense of togetherness. As sweat pours from the dancers’ bodies, the message is that ‘we will not be beaten’. A fine company with a fine message.