The Guardian, 18th March 2019

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Ballet Black review – welly-wearing dancers stage miners’ strike

Barbican, London, Mon 18 Mar 2019
by Lyndsey Winship

The company’s triple bill includes Ingoma, a powerful piece inspired by events that led to South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement

Lyndsey Winship

Ballet Black may be, by its nature, political – the company was founded to nurture black and Asian dancers – but its approach to commissioning has never been issue-based. Ballet Black dancer Mthuthuzeli November’s choreographic debut for the company, Ingoma, sounds like the exception. It’s inspired by the 1946 South African miners’ strike – credited as the beginning of what would become the anti-apartheid movement – in which nine were killed and more than 1,200 injured by police. But November’s ambitious, atmospheric work is focused more on the experience of grieving families than the politics of power and race.

I can’t say I knew exactly what was happening at every moment, but some of the imagery is perfectly clear. At the outset, the dancers swap pointe shoes for wellies, sporting head torches and pickaxes tucked in their belts – Ballet Black’s dancers are nothing if not versatile – descending into the earth with the sound of a work song ringing out.

There were 60,000 striking men. You might wonder how six dancers are going to recreate that. But November cleverly uses only one, José Alves, with a soundtrack of massed call and response filling the gap. Alves, on the spot, gaze fixed forward, steps and stamps in relentless rhythm, fist thrown in the air, driving himself to exhaustion.

Alves also dances a yearningly sad duet with Sayaka Ichikawa, their foreheads repeatedly touching in a tacit bond. Ichikawa flutters her hand, anxiously clutched at her chest. It seems to symbolise her vulnerability, but it’s a motif that will reappear later in the piece, as a gesture that’s pleading, and then one that’s defiant.

November naturally blends ballet, on pointe, with an earthier African idiom – supple-torsoed Marie Astrid Mence captures the fusion particularly well. Posture and weight are modified, pointe shoes become percussive instruments, straight spines gently sway backwards, chests tilted to the heavens. The strongest section sees four women moving with an intensity of purpose that is almost warrior-like.

Finally, in the outpouring of grief there is distress and pride, helplessness and yet a fierce energy for the fight. The dancers dig deep to serve November’s heartfelt work.

Ingoma’s weight is balanced by two zingier preludes. First there’s Martin Lawrance’s short but satisfying duet Pendulum, which swings between contemporary styling and clean classical steps, wary confrontation and intimate pas de deux. Dancers Ichikawa and November face off against each other with grace.

Click!, a premiere from the talented Sophie Laplane, former dancer and choreographer-in-residence at Scottish Ballet, reveals a quirkily original voice. The dancers are dressed in acid-bright suits, shoulder pads and pointe shoes (love this ballet power dressing). Isabela Coracy, in vivid yellow, has the rhythm bouncing through her body, zigzagging from shoulder to ribs, hips and head. It’s inventive choreography with an easy-going groove, wit and fun. The music has a retro feel while the dance is fresh, like a nonchalant pirouette in which the dancer holds the foot raised in attitude behind her.

The dancers’ personalities seep out at the edges, but you want more: more energy, more smiles, more unfettered pleasure, more “owning” of the movement. As the music builds it almost becomes joyous, but then the piece heads off in a different direction. Laplane wants to explore different moods in one piece, fair enough, but the uneven result misses out on capitalising on her strongest ideas.