Barbican Theatre, London
March 4, 2017
by Maggie Foyer
Ballet Black was founded 16 years ago by the intrepid Cassa Pancho, determined to colour the pale façade of ballet. The question remains, in this age of legalised racial equality, do we still need an ethnically defined ballet company? The practical answer is ‘yes’, because we still do not have enough young people from minority groups learning ballet, with the corollary that too much talent remains undiscovered. The gut reaction answer is also, ‘yes’. The company draws audiences reflecting the inner London demographic mix and enjoying dance where black women dancing on pointe is the norm. Right on, Ballet Black!
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa provides the highlight of the programme, Red Riding Hood. It’s a winner, a ‘coming of age’ work for the company who tackle it with undisguised glee. It’s a fairy tale with a twist: no-one gets eaten, the Wolf (Mthuthuzeli November) is a charmer and Red Riding Hood, (Cira Robinson) comes out on top.
In the darkened auditorium a chilling wolf howl fills the air. The lights come up and Robinson in traditional red coat is surrounded by a company of wolves pulsating rhythmically to a strong beat. A competitive theme plays out in the constant one-upmanship between Red Riding Hood and various groups of wolves accompanied by music that skilfully heightens the theatricality. Ochoa uses no less than nine composers and an intriguing assortment of tunes, to follow the twists of the plot. Despite remaining at heart a cautionary tale, there are many deviations, flirtatious comedy follows hot on the heels of menace in the light of a full moon and the dark forest is no more than a clever cluster of colourful balloons.
Robinson is as sparky as we expect from this star performer but has serious competition from November who is in his element; swinging his hips and swirling his tail like a cowboy’s lasso and even adding a few nifty hat tricks on the side. He is teased shamelessly by trios of flirty females and has his work cut out to maintain top wolf status helped by a wild and whimsical costume.
Mother is always on hand with instructions and warnings and Granny appears in several iterations. The most spectacular being José Alves in grey wig and night gear but on pointe with the back story of a previous career as a Bolshoi ballerina – the mind boggles!
Preceding the mayhem, the programme opens with two contrasting quartets that follow the mood suggested by the composers: gentle and romantic from Claude Debussy and troubled and edgy from Dmitri Shostakovich.
Michael Corder’s House of Dreams is a company premiere. To Debussy’s piano music and using the ballet vocabulary with casual ease, his practised structuring of steps taking on the friendly face we have come to expect from the company. This was particularly noticeable in the opening duet danced by Marie Astrid Mence and Jacob Wye. Sakaya Ichikawa and Damien Johnson bring a serious tone to the second pas de deux; the choreography unpredictable, the contact more intense. However, the costumes, shiny and frilly, were something of a distraction.
Martin Lawrence’s Captured, written for the company in 2012, makes a welcome return. Set to Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.11, each of the short movements signals a shift in emotional register, interpreted in the unstable relationships. The choreography, adopting a more contemporary register, was well suited to the dancers’ talents. The men, November and Alves, were particularly well served in powerful bursts of energetic movement and were well supported by the women, Cira Robinson and Isabela Coracy. Their pas de deux express the unease and complications in the liaisons, making for interesting and dynamic dance. The choreography is challenging and the four gave excellent performances, technically strong and emotionally convincing.
The eight Ballet Black dancers are some of Britain’s hardest workers and this programme shows them at their best: accomplished, versatile and great communicators. Their audiences too are growing. A poll at the after show talk showed a considerable number of first timers, satisfied customers that will hopefully broaden the appeal of ballet.