Ballet Black, review: a plea to polish our souls
This beautiful, intelligently curated evening at the Linbury demands to be seen
By Mark Monahan
5 November 2021
“What kind of times are these?” It’s a question that, in one form or another, has been ricocheting with particular urgency around all our heads this past year or two. It is also the title of the pointed Adrienne Rich poem that launches Then or Now, the excellent new work that Ballet Black premiered this week at the Royal Opera House’s “below-stairs” Linbury Theatre.
Created by seasoned choreographer Will Tuckett, this emotionally simmering, mostly abstract neo-classical piece plays out both to readings of Rich’s 1991-1995 volume Dark Fields of the Republic, and to Von Biber’s 1676 Passacaglia for solo violin, in a new, pre-recorded arrangement by Daniel Pioro. It begins with the always mesmerising Cira Robinson marking out an eloquent, passionate solo as the seven other performers remain seated on chairs: sombre, physically mute, facing dead ahead as if completely unaware of her.
As Tuckett says in the programme notes, every action we take these days seems to be a political edge. And moreover, it is impossible for a new work, created in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, for an explicitly non-white troupe, and set to socially call-to-arms verse, not to have a political edge.
True, a passage such as the powerful Deportations, with Tuckett’s suddenly mimetic choreography punchily representing “They have come for us, two of us and four of them”, feels largely a cry of horror at racial prejudice. But it is also about the importance of having somewhere to call home – and, absolutely in the vein of Rich (1929-2012), the piece feels above all like a call for respect across any and all divides.
This is classy choreography – showing the super company off at their very best – in which women are often lifted by one or more men, but always with complete tenderness; not like powerless playthings, but as if being helped and encouraged to soar. And at the close of this complex, 40-minute odyssey of incident and emotion, Robinson is once again performing solo, but the others, though seated, are facing her, rapt with attention, which is to say that she is now perhaps not really alone at all. Far from contradicting this note of optimism, the ensemble’s closing, downcast faces seem to suggest just how far the world still has to go.
If Then or Now’s production values – the mournful, repeatedly descending metre of the Von Biber solo violin; the stark, markedly un-kaleidoscopic lighting; the bare, rehearsal-room-style stage – at times feel relentlessly ascetic, they nevertheless suit the piece. And they also, it turns out, make for a satisfying audio-visual contrast with the piece that follows.
If Then or Now is a plea for us to polish our souls, The Waiting Game – another premiere, by company dancer Mthuthuzeli November – is an exhortation to make the most of our lives. As kinetic here as he is in Tuckett’s piece, he stars as a put-upon salaryman who (in his head, at least) manages to make the break from daily-grind drudgery to something rather more exciting.
Inspired by Beckett (like last month’s lovely L’Heure exquise, also at the Linbury), it wears its other apparent, dance-theatrical influences very much on its sleeve: the wry existential-angst, complete with voiceover, is pure Hofesh Shechter; the freakish “chorus”, decidedly Crystal Pite. But November nevertheless keeps the surprises coming, with Sayaka Ichikawa’s irresistibly playful performance the icing on a decidedly moreish cake.
In an ideal world, Ballet Black – formed in 2001 by Cassa Pancho to give black and Asian dancers some role models – wouldn’t even exist. However, watch an original, beautifully danced, intelligently curated evening like this, and you can’t help hoping that – even if the ballet world does one day become less glaringly “white” – they stick around for a long while yet.