Ballet Black Double Bill: The Suit / A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Rose Theatre Kingston
Review by Vera Liber
In a touring double bill of drama and wit, Ballet Black (founded in 2001), a company of seven, punches above its weight. Having reviewed the company three consecutive years in a row, I missed this bill at the Barbican in March and, lo, here’s a lucky chance to catch up with it in Kingston. The burghers of Kingston give it a warm welcome, too.
Celebrating dancers of black and Asian descent, led by artistic director Cassa Pancho, Ballet Black has a reputation for commissioning interesting choreographers.
It has worked with the prolific (The Wind, The Little Match Girl, Run Mary Run, The Metamorphosis… to name but a few) Arthur Pita before, but Cathy Marston (Witch-hunt), former director of Bern Ballett, is a first in a finely balanced double bill with choreography contrasting in style and subject matter.
Can Themba’s 1963 short story The Suit, set in the Johannesburg township of Sophiatown, has inspired Peter Brook and a 2016 film featuring John Kani. Now it gets the dance treatment (dramaturg Edward Kemp, a regular collaborator of Marston’s) and it works exceedingly well.
The crux of the matter is adultery. It has something of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 The Scarlet Letter about it, this vengeful visible shaming of a woman. Here it is a tyrannical husband who sentences his wife, the woman he loves, to daily misery, fear and intimidation.
The morning starts well: a happy Philemon (José Alves) gets out of bed, kisses his wife’s legs and goes off to work. We get the colourful street life of the township, albeit in sepia brown. Then he remembers his briefcase at home, returns and finds Matilda (Sayaka Ichikawa) in bed with her lover Simon. Simon (Mthuthulezi November) gets away leaving his suit behind.
Trousers, jacket, white shirt and golden tie are hung neatly on a hanger. The symbol of Matilda’s sin, she must carry the suit everywhere. Take it to the local shebeen, where she dances with her husband and hopes for a return to better times. Is all finally forgiven? No, he can’t, he makes her dance with the suit.
Matilda’s waking life and her dreams have turned to nightmares and there is only one way to end it. There’s a moment early on in the forty-minute dance theatre piece in which a clue is given, a premonition. She tries the tie for size around her neck… Philemon’s harshness, his unbending male dominance, destroys him, too. Hindsight would be a fine thing.
A metaphor for the psychological abuse of apartheid itself perhaps, here it is an intense personal drama. With a nerve-jangling, brain-scrambling, and sensual soundscape, a mix of Keith Volans, Charles Ives, Philip Feeney, Ariel Guzik, Carlos Paredes, Juan García Esquivel, Margarita Lecuona, Jon Hassell and Thomas Oboe Lee, recorded by the Kronos Quartet.
A cast of seven play not only the three protagonists, chorus and locals but also the props and the scenery—the washbasin, the mirror, the bathroom, the toilet flush—a surreal animated representation of objects, conveniently to hand. Precision is paramount, especially in the split screen presentation. The dancing is superb, the love duets sexily gymnastic.
Jan Heather’s portable minimal set, a couple of white angular coat stands and three white chairs that make up a bed, is as stark as the moral tale.
Pita’s mischief-making 2014 A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes as welcome relief and release after the interval and the audience loves it. Who wouldn’t love a naughty green-Mohican-haired and bearded Puckish scoutmaster with long eyelashes and magical stardust? Bit of a sexpot, too. Is he Pita’s alter ego?
Isabel Coracy’s Puck has lots of wicked fun dragging Hermia out of the way and making Lysander and Demetrius fall for Helena, but as always with Pita there’s a little twist. The two girls (Marie Astrid Mence and Sayaka Ichikawa) fall for each other and the two showcasing studs (Ebony Thomas and Mthuthulezi November) are rather demoted if not for long, taking kissing cues from the girls.
In a magical tropical forest (sounds and butterfly nets—I never knew Oberon (José Alves) was a lepidopterist…) anything can happen. Titania (Cira Robinson) falls for Bottom (clever doubling by Mthuthulezi November), naturally, but it’s not the main thrust of this Dream.
The soundtrack (sound design Andrew Holdsworth and Frank Moon) is deliciously literal. “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love)” sung by Eartha Kitt, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” by Barbra Streisand, “Lilac Wine” by Jeff Buckley, Yma Sumac and Antony & the Johnsons feature, but the best for me is Handel’s baroque “Sarabande keyboard suite in D minor”.
Handel opens and closes the courtly pas de deux, quatre and six classical ballet realm of pointe shoes and tutus (Jean-Marc Puissant design), whereas in the forest anything goes: Broadway songs, funky tunes, same-sex and cross-species love.
Witty, electrifying, with classical fouettés thrown in for good measure, male on male and female on female duets, lots of cheeky merriment, contemporary and classical mix nicely. David Plater’s lighting does fine work substituting for elaborate sets. Oh, and the patron saint of surrealism, Salvador Dalí, makes a fleeting appearance. Make of that what you will.