The Arts Desk, 12th Nov 2021

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Ballet Black, Linbury Theatre review – an essential part of the landscape
Twenty years on, the pity is that it’s still necessary for this excellent company to exist

By Jenny Gilbert
12th November 2021

The colour of a shoe might seem a trivial thing. But when in 2018 the dancewear manufacturer Freed launched the UK’s first range of pointe shoes to match darker skin tones, true equal opportunity in British ballet came a big step closer.

The initiative came partly from the African-American dancer Cira Robinson who, during her time in New York with Dance Theatre of Harlem, had long since stopped having to buy standard shell-pink pointes and dye them in cold tea, and was shocked to find the UK ballet shoe market lagging so far behind.
Robinson is now a senior artist with Ballet Black, a small British company whose goal is, ultimately, to render itself unnecessary. Set up 20 years ago to employ black and Asian classical dancers whose talents were being overlooked by the mainstream companies, it has gradually been reshaping the dance landscape, not only through its casting policy and the determination of founder Cassa Pancho – who has set up a BB junior dance school alongside – but also in the work it commissions. An evening with Ballet Black is never predictable or bland, and its new double bill is typically both thought-provoking and fun.

Will Tuckett’s Then or Now looks dour at first with its semi-circle of metal chairs, set out as if for a self-help meeting, or maybe a poetry bash, which in a sense is what this is, though the performers seated on the chairs don’t speak. Recorded voices act as a musical score, delivering a selection of poems by the late American poet Adrienne Rich which spur the dancers (pictured above) into intermittent action, sometimes illuminating specific lines, more often responding obliquely, using empty chairs to bounce off or soar over. It takes no time to get used to the idea of words as music, and you start to notice the pleasing counterpoint between the poems’ metre and the rhythmic patterning of the steps. They’re such a good fit, it’s surprising that dance and spoken verse don’t meet more often.

Rich’s 1995 collection Dark Fields of the Republic ranges far and wide. It inhabits a spare but variegated poetic landscape where the boundary between politics and personal relationships dissolves. There’s a disturbing poem about the hounding and arrest of two illegal immigrants. There’s a comic one about office communication. Most are less specific, providing imaginative space for the listener and the choreography, but all are a rallying call to action – against apathy, against injustice, a good fit for this company, particularly in the wake of Black Lives Matter. The choreographer supplies us with just enough specifics for the words and the sheer élan of these handsome dancers to do the rest. Baroque violin improvisations from Daniel Pioro propose a virtuosity that the dancers rise to in a dazzling finale.

The Waiting Game, by company member Mthuthuzeli November (pictured above, in the hat), also has a recorded voiceover, but the tone is lighter, like cartoon thought-bubbles. A hapless figure in glasses, crumpled chinos and crepe-soled shoes, November wonders how it’s possible ever to progress in life given the teeming, irrelevant and frankly unhelpful thoughts that jostle for space in his head. Should he wear these shoes today? Should he open the door? Who invented doors anyway? The seven other member of the company personify those pesky intrusions, a set-up that could be over-cute but which is executed with such joyous energy and just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek, that the result is charming.

We can only assume that our distracted anti-hero does get his act together, because in the final segment he makes a jubilant entrance in a sequinned coat, channeling the spirit of Alvin Ailey as he and the entire Ballet Black company rock along to Etta James’s “Something’s Got a Hold of Me”. Everyone goes home smiling.