‘Triple Bill’, Ballet Black – The Barbican Theatre
March 18, 2019
by Audrey Lemarchand
Within the ballet world, it is impossible to miss the absence of diversity amongst dancers performing on stage, which—still today—are overwhelmingly white. In the last years, the lack of inclusivity in ballet has been underlined and brought to popular attention including some relative coverage in mainstream media. You might have heard of Misty Copeland, a Principal with the American Ballet Theatre and the first Black ballerina to reach the highest rank in the company. More recently in late 2018, The New York Times and The Telegraph both covered English pointe-shoe maker Freed of London’s release of new colours for ballet shoes – now also produced in ‘bronze’ and ‘black’. Far from being a minor material detail, pointe-shoes are essential to ballet aesthetics; the sole point of them is to prolong the line of the ballerina’s legs. Hence, for a non-white dancer to wear traditional pale pointe-shoes, it defeats their sole purpose… The symbolic and practical impact of creating inclusive shoes for all dancers is significant. However, Freed was not alone in developing the new tones of pointe shoes and has successfully partnered with a fellow London-based dance company, Ballet Black.
Ballet Black was founded in 2001 by Cassa Pancho, a fresh graduate from the Royal Academy of Dance of Trinidadian and British descent. Black Ballet is specifically for dancers of black and asian backgrounds. Now launching its 18th season at The Barbican, Ballet Black premiered a stimulating triple bill including two brand new pieces.
The evening began with the revival of Pendulum, a 10-year-old piece by Martin Lawrence. Set in a tense and colourless setting, the intricate and physical choreography required precision from the dancers. Accompanied by Steve Reich’s minimalistic music, the piece created a captivating sense of tension and urgency. However, the choreography was most interesting through its narrative abstraction, leaving plenty of leeway for the dancers to display their personalities and own approach to the movement. Sayaka Ichikawa presented a precise, steady and strong performance in what seemed to be a contrast to her partner Mthuthuzeli November. The latter appeared as an incisive force on stage, with a technique less adhering to usual ballet standards but out-shadowed by exceptional energy driving each step.
In a swift transition, the five other dancers of the company took over to introduce CLICK!, a new piece by Scottish Ballet resident choreographer, Sophie Laplane – which is a delight, in itself, considering the on-going predominance of male ballet choreographers. The stage starkly transformed, flooded in a profusion of colours, with a hint of pop-feeling to it (think spotlights and sleek pantsuits). The piece was irreverent and swingy, and a delight to watch. Every move felt like an ecstatic celebration of joy and fun. Even the emotional pas-de-deux showcasing a consuming relationship had a comfortable and pleasing warmth to it.
To end the evening, the company performed a new piece choreographed by one of its very own dancers, Mthuthuzeli November. The work indeed seemed to express the company’s creative identity, with a commitment to take ballet to new, overlooked places.
Similarly to the other pieces presented in the triple bill, the choreography was efficient and the dancers were strong. Their interpretation of the hardships of 1940s South African miners and their families was intensely communicative. What made the piece remarkable, however, was the narrative it holds. While ballet is mostly still engrained in the nineteenth-century European romantic aesthetic, Ingoma tells the story of a non-European community with empathy and respect, departing from the racist stereotypes inherited from the art-form’s past (yes, I am looking at you La Bayadere and The Nutcracker). Pushing the boundaries of ballet is not only necessary, but also feels inspiring. The tercentenary ballet vocabulary is rich in its precision and should be used to tell many diverse stories.
The triple bill contained an ideal balance of exhilarating works, between abstraction and narration, drama and comedy, grief and glee. The company, packed with brilliant dancers and role models for the next generation, has undeniably reached an exciting stage of maturity with its own impactful voice. The three works presented were bold and inclusive, continuing to develop a truly essential and refreshing addition to ballet.