Ballet Black – Linbury Studio, London
by Judith Mackrell
The Guardian, Thursday 10 April 2008
Sixty years ago, when Les Ballets Negrès pioneered some of the earliest black dance performances in Britain, they were obliged to market themselves as an exotic novelty. Decades on, the six members of Ballet Black (all from black or Asian backgrounds) may still face a dispiritingly white scene. But this small, determined company no longer requires special marketing for its repertory. On the contrary the latest programme features some of the most original new ballets to be shown this season.
Walk Through a Storm, for instance, is the first classical work by Richard Alston in 25 years and just as it is a coup for Ballet Black to have commissioned it, so Alston relishes the opportunity. Taking on the eloquent, romantic rush of Beethoven’s Piano Variations, Alston uses ballet’s gravity-defying lexicon of pointwork and pirouettes to create an equivalently expansive, airy set of dance variations. And if at times he pushes hard against the limits of Ballet Black’s collective technique, the ebullient flow of his choreography, and the grace and quirky detail with which he embellishes it, underline the dancers’ personality.
Even more of a coup for the company is getting Shobana Jeyasingh to create her first ballet. Breach may be less classical than Alston’s work, yet where Jeyasingh raids elements, she uses them to fascinatingly hybrid effect, as delicate bharatya natyam gestures are riffed over beaten jumps, and a high arabesque line is steeled with a martial arts edge.
Best of all, this setting of music by Mukul Patel and Stephen Montague displays Jeyasingh’s ferocious talent for structure, with lines of movement shuttling backwards and forwards until the stage vibrates with concentrated energy.
Completing the programme are two works by Liam Scarlett. This young choreographer still tends to work too obviously within genres: the Latin styled Somente too self consciously larky, and Indigo Children, set to music by Philip Glass, too reminiscent of the glossy modern ballet crossovers of the 1980s. But there are intricacies of partnering and felicities of line in Scarlett’s choreography that suggest he is learning fast. And Ballet Black may be very smart to forge a relationship with him.