Seeing Dance, March 20th 2019

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Ballet Black in thrilling dance that comes from the heart
Published: March 20, 2019
by Maggie Foyer

Ballet Black’s triple bill at the Barbican is evidence of a coming of age. The company, led by founder director Cassa Pancho, celebrates its 18th season with a neatly balanced programme; rich in heart, diverse in choreographic innovation, technical expertise, and unpretentious enjoyment.

To retain its relevance in the twenty-first century, ballet needs to become more inclusive and also to look to subjects that resonate with modern audiences. With Mthuthuzeli November’s Ingoma, the company takes a monumental step along this trajectory. It is the first commission from a company dancer and the first voice from a black ballet perspective. November, still only 25 years-old, presents his first large UK work and it’s a triumph.

The catalyst is a painting by Gerald Sekota of a synchronised line of road workers with picks raised. Thematically, the piece brings to life the 1940 South African Gold Reef black miners’ strike, with resonances of the similarly brutally suppressed 2012 Marikana strikes. Many were killed in both. The story is told from the inside out: the gruelling, repetitive work and the overwhelming sense of injustice. The pace is slow, the emotions deep and the sense of commitment shown by the dancers is both thrilling and humbling.

November shows a well-developed sense of drama as he structures the dynamics. There is a reality check as the dancers set the stage, dressed alike in khaki work trousers and helmets. The tasks are mundane, but the atmosphere is fraught with danger. The lighting (David Plater) draws the space down, the row of amber lights creating a ceiling while the headlamps pierce the darkness. November’s choreography comes from the heart, rhythmic repetitive moves punctuated by detailed fluttering hands. The women dance en pointe and the insertion of classical steps is extraordinary, as bourrées and batterie find relevance in the heat of the struggle.

A duet between Sayaka Ichikawa, now in a drab blue dress and headscarf, and José Alves is painful in its intimacy. They stand close, foreheads touching, sharing their love, their breath and their fear, and dance in weaving, wrapping patterns. Ichikawa’s later solo embodies the pain of women everywhere in the face of loss and death. It was an outstanding performance, as was Alves’ earlier solo which took him to the edge and through the pain barrier.

Isabela Coracy stood out as a leader of the workers, but Ingoma is an ensemble work with the dancers authentic in the power of their punches, lyrical and firm in the women’s dance and amazing in their song, (yes, they sing in Xhosa) and not to mention traditional gumboot dance.

A second new commissioned, Click, by Scottish Ballet’s Sophie Laplane, makes an ideal contrast. The sassy performances, the bright coloured suits, (Yann Seabra) and corresponding lighting (also by Plater) all click.

Opening on a witty quip and closing on a final snap of her fingers, Isabela Coracy conducts the tightly knit piece. The range of music, popular songs on the theme, allow a range of personalities. A duet by kitten-cute Marie Astrid Mence and Ebony Thomas, fast paced, brilliant in execution with a definite tongue-in-cheek insouciance, is followed by the gentler, lyrical partnership of Cira Robinson and José Alves who only have eyes for each other. Then with a snap change in lighting and mood Coracy musters her troupe of dancers for a finale that leaves a bubble of happiness bouncing through the audience. I hope we see a great deal more of the talents of Ms Laplane.

The evening opened with a revival of Pendulum, Martin Lawrence’s duet from 2009. The relationship is definitely more Van Manen than Petipa, as the couple compete, challenge and occasionally correspond. Steve Reich’s sound score provides the right fractious background for Sayaka Ichikawa and November to eyeball, ignore and embrace. Technically the work is challenging as each calls the opening shots with a solo of unusual combinations of steps and unexpected launchpads. The dancers tackled the ballet with fierce energy rarely seen in ballet companies. It was an evening when ballet has found an authentic black voice and it’s time to celebrate.