The Times, 18th March 2019

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Review: Ballet Black at the Barbican

An attempt to honour the dignity of human beings struggling to survive is impressive if also a touch heavy-handed and worthy

by Donald Hutera
March 18 2019

Ballet Black, the popular British-based ensemble of exemplary black and Asian classical dancers, is celebrating its 18th season with a triple bill that includes two world premieres. The most significant of these is Ingoma, this enterprising company’s first main-stage choreographic commission by someone from within its ranks. Created by the dancer Mthuthuzeli November, it’s a bold, almost ceremonially earnest one-act work inspired by the hardships and resistance among South African miners and their families in both the distant and recent past.

Ingoma takes a while to build up emotional steam. Wearing gumboots and carrying pickaxes, the cast of six set the scene by hauling — and pouring out in an area at stage right — bags of what looks like soft coal. Subsequent moves centre stage signal their fortitude and suffering as well as angry protest with fists raised. Although November crafts an effectively sorrowful, loving duet for the nominal male and female leads, it’s only with a strong, swirling female quartet that his writing begins to take off.

For me the pinnacle on press night was a heartfelt, physically full-throttle solo from Isabela Coracy followed by a tremulously sensitive one from Sayaka Ichikawa. Set to Peter Johnson’s score of echoing percussion occasionally supplemented by haunted, wordless vocals, this dance wants to honour the dignity and indomitability of human beings struggling to survive. The net effect is impressive if also a touch heavy-handed and worthy.

The other new ballet is in total contrast. CLICK!, by the moonlighting Scottish Ballet dancer Sophie Laplane, is a light-hearted crowd-pleaser with nothing more on its mind than playing with the literally finger-snapping connections between people. Most of it is an undemanding exercise in would-be cool marked by a few clever choreographic conceits. The five dancers wear brightly coloured suits. One couple meet cute to a retro-pop track, while another enjoy a tender, adagio encounter underscored by piano music.

The evening’s curtain-raiser is an only partially welcome revival of Martin Lawrance’s 2009 duet Pendulum. Ichikawa, lithe and strong, and the powerfully built November were rivals — and equals — in what amounts to a brief test of kinetic mettle set to a recording of Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music (8 Microphones). Alas, the latter was played at such a hatefully high volume that it blinded me to their assured dancing.