Seeing Dance, 20th Oct 2022

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Say It Loud/Black Sun Review

By David Mead
October 20, 2022

Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London

Twenty-one years ago, Cassa Pancho founded Ballet Black with the aim of giving a voice to black and Asian dancers. But as the voiceover to Say It Loud, created by Pancho and the dancers to celebrate the company’s twentieth anniversary, tells us, initially, “No-one really noticed us. No-one took us seriously in the early days. But that gave us an artistic freedom.” And perhaps, one might add, space and time to bloom. Today, Ballet Black is one of Britain’s best known and most vibrant companies, with over 50 creations by 37 choreographers over its two decades.

Say It Loud tells the story of the company through a series of dances that give everyone a chance to shine. To music that runs from Steve Reich through grime artist Flowdan and the Trinidadian calypso of Lord Kitchener to Etta James’ ‘At Last’, the light-touch choreography is largely very classical, fluid and full of grace, although there are moments of humour in there too.

Everyone will have their personal highlight, but the gently romantic, as classical as they come, pas de deux by Jose Alves and Cira Robinson to James’ ‘At Last’ takes some beating. It is quite sublime.

Jon Baptiste’s setting of ‘Wonderful World’, danced as a female trio, includes the perfect line for Pancho and dancers past and present: “I found a dream that I could speak to; a dream that I could call my own.”

While it is a joyous piece, filled with individuality and energy, Pancho doesn’t shy away from referring to the background noise that has accompanied the company. The voiceover also includes many comments from social media trolls and others who have questioned its purpose, those who would prefer it primarily to be a campaigning rather than artistic organisation, and the dancers themselves. While filled with good intent, and making clear the questions that were asked and the stereotyping Ballet Black faced, it is rather heavy-handed, however.

Say It Loud is presented alongside Black Sun by South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma. As it takes the show way beyond classical technique, it is undoubtedly a better reflection of where the company is today.

Featuring an original score by Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante, it’s inspired by rites of passage and spiritual influences. The programme tells us that the work draws energy from the sun and the moon giving rise to descendants of ancestors. When these forces meet, they allow us to draw from their powers as we prepare for whatever follows life. I’m not at all convinced you would get that without reading it first.

A work that puts the emphasis largely on the collective, Black Sun is certainly full of energy and intensity, pent up and let rip. The opening, that has Cira Robinson bourréeing back and forth on pointe for a long time is full of anxiety and uncertainty. A later pas de deux with November is made to look effortless, especially one lift onto his shoulders. About to retire, she is going to be sorely missed.

The dancing is magnificent across the board, the choreography increasingly powerful with much stomping and shouting. For all that Robinson and the others are compelling, it’s November who is the star, however. At one point leads the dancers as he bangs out rhythms using upturned buckets as drums. He also sings and chants to great effect as the cast beat out yet more rhythms with the feet.

In many ways, Ballet Black bucked the odds. Much of that is down to Pancho and being unafraid to be different as they embrace the many traditions and heritages the dancers and choreographers bring. It is quite a success story. Long may it continue!