London Dance Journal: A Ballet Company to Watch
By ALASTAIR MACAULAY
LONDON — The British company Ballet Black was founded in 2001 “to provide role models to young, aspiring black and Asian dancers.” The company’s profile has risen markedly in the last two years, and in January it won the Critics’ Circle National Dance Award for outstanding company.
Its six dancers are highly accomplished. The program at the Royal Opera House here was choreography-oriented – four world premieres (by Henri Oguike, Raymond Chai, Robert Hylton and Christopher Hampson, all British-based choreographers) — and there’s reason to hope Ballet Black will acquire a repertory of real substance. (Maybe live music too.)
None of the four pieces is important, though Mr. Hampson’s “Sextet” – set to Hindemith — has enough individuality, fluency and range to show why a number of British dancegoers have been paying attention to his work. Just now, however, the dancers –- attractive, skilled, personable, serious — are the main story. And all the choreography is about different pure-dance aspects of modern ballet: it’s there to show what these performers can do.
When I watch “And Thereafter …” (by Mr. Chai, the company’s chief ballet master) as a ballet, it’s the weakest item of the program. (The first of its two scores, Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel,” has long been a dance-music cliché. The second is a movement from a Bach violin concerto overlaid with vocalise by Bobby McFerrin. This develops into what sounds like a heavy gale.) But when I follow it merely as pure-dance exercises to showcase its four performers — this means viewing not as an amateur so much as an external examiner, a less enjoyable way to take in dance — it becomes the afternoon’s most rewarding event.
Three of these six dancers – Chantelle Gotobed, Jade Hale-Christofi and Sarah Kundi — are British-born, and the first two have Royal Ballet School training. The others – Damien Johnson, Cira Robinson, and Jazmon Voss — are American. (They all passed through the Dance Theater of Harlem school or its ensemble, and Mr. Johnson also trained at the School of American Ballet.) Many of the steps have an athletic Balanchine-American accent that is still slightly unusual in Britain. But the dancers in general present themselves with an upper-body charm, elegance and focus that feels British.
Mr. Hylton’s “Human Revolution” strikes me as formulaic dance theater à la William Forsythe in its modishly aggressive use of physical hyperextension, off-balance thrusts and kicks, and push-pull partnering (with a percussive computer-rock score by Mr. Hylton himself). But it lets us see in no uncertain terms how Ms. Robinson and Mr. Voss can spin, sweep, stretch.
Both “And Thereafter…” and “Sextet” make nice compare-and-contrast use of Mr. Hale-Christofi, who is more sober but marvelously precise and strong, and Mr. Johnson, who has more spontaneity, bite and presence. I will forget these four ballets, but I am impatient to see what all these dancers will go on to do. And I am more impatient yet to see how Ballet Black will progress when it enters its second decade.