Ballet Black’s euphoric optimism lights up the Barbican
The dance company celebrates its 20th anniversary with a new dance piece charting its history – and poking fun at naysayers
By Mark Monahan
26 March 2022 • 2:52pm
“What’s the point of Ballet Black?” So goes one of the many genuine verbatim comments about the company that are read out in voiceover at the start of its new piece, Say It Loud. And, in a sense, the statement comes close to answering – however moronically – its own rhetorical question.
The company was founded in 2001 by British Trinidadian Cassa Pancho (since appointed MBE for her very great efforts) to give black and Asian dancers some role models that, at the time, were almost entirely absent in the blindingly white world of ballet. Twenty years later, it has not only eight cracking performers, but a rep that includes more than 50 ballets by 37 choreographers.
Say It Loud, by Pancho herself, is the first of two new works that make up this 20th-anniversary bill at the Barbican. A more-than-benign exercise in navel-gazing, it is something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before: a potted, semi-impressionistic history of the company that’s dancing it. And although the (mostly neo-classical, at times hybrid) steps themselves are far from adventurous – Pancho herself admits that she has, over the years, had to subordinate her own choreographic ambitions to being an administrator and impresario – it’s an irresistibly optimistic piece of work, occasionally funny, and at times downright fascinating.
A little over 30 minutes long, it has seven clearly delineated sections. It begins with those voiceovers (along with enjoyably incredulous glances from the eight performers), establishing a thread that runs throughout the entire piece. Some, clearly, are downright unpleasant. (“Black people want Bob Marley, not ballet,” goes another.) But they soon turn more positive: “I love Ballet Black,” comes as a welcome antidote.
Next, to the fractured ostinato of Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, comes an ensemble that bristles with upbeat urgency, energy and purpose – a deft (if also, thanks to Reich, slightly eardrum-battering) representation of the troupe’s formation.
This, however, is followed by the work’s only two emotionally downbeat sections. The first is a startling, panicky homage to the city in which the company was born and lives, playing out – amid unsettling and intrusive searchlights – to the bleakly caustic Welcome to London, by grime star Flowdan. (Always a stand-out, Mthuthuzeli November handles this solo expertly.) And the next passage cranks up the irony still further.
This, as Pancho explains in a fascinating programme essay, tackles head-on “the frustration of navigating a predominantly White ballet world”. After the murder of George Floyd, she writes, all manner of previously uninterested parties approached them, wanting them to “manufacture the right kind of story”, and, if she and the dancers had experienced racism, to “be willing to serve it up as entertainment”. Her tartly amusing, ragingly sarcastic response is a quintet of dancers shimmying merrily to Trinbagonian calypso giant Lord Kitchener’s If You’re Brown while teasingly flapping Mardi Gras-style feather boas. Ouch.
Thereafter, however, the mist of cynicism swiftly clears. Via (among other things) a soul-warming duet to Etta James’s eternally seductive, here perfectly relevant At Last, the piece builds to a climax that feels like a carefully constructed free-for-all. (Special praise here, as elsewhere, for newcomer Rosanna Lindsey.) By this point, on Friday, the spirit of can-do optimism radiating from the stage was quite euphoric, and the pretty much sold-out Barbican Hall responded in kind.
The evening’s second piece, Black Sun, shares Say It Loud’s spirit of hope, but is otherwise very different, and less successful. It sees choreographer Gregory Maqoma and the here commendably uninhibited eight dancers explore the supernatural Afro-Caribbean rites of yesteryear: an embracing of the past, I think, in order to progress to the future. However, in the absence of anything to explain exactly what we’re witnessing (or where, or when), and with lighting design that’s domineering but oddly un-atmospheric, it isn’t necessarily easy to get a foothold in it, and you may find its periodic favouring of percussion over choreography frustrating.
Still, you may also disagree, and anyway, the evening is worth catching for the first piece alone. Besides which, the good that Ballet Black does is ungainsayable. As the saying goes, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” Well, where ballet audiences (despite right-minded nationwide drives towards inclusivity) remain almost invariably overwhelmingly white, this company’s, as Friday proved, are quite the opposite. “What’s the point of Ballet Black?” That is.