The Times, London 3rd March 2009

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Ballet Black at the Linbury, Royal Opera House, London WC2
Debra Craine
Published at 12:01AM, March 3 2009

Ballet Black may have been set up to give performing opportunities to black and Asian classical dancers, but it’s almost more important for the showcase it provides for new choreography. The company’s latest programme, performed at the Linbury Studio in the Royal Opera House, features no fewer than three world premieres. If their success is mixed, their ambition and eclecticism certainly deserve to be applauded.

Liam Scarlett’s Hinterland (2007) is the only non-premiere on this bill, but its return is welcome. It uses excerpts from Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2 to send three men and three women on a lively rhythmic adventure. Sometimes the rhythms are simple, sometimes complex, but Scarlett’s choreography treats them all as a chance to taste the difference.

Hinterland is well pitched to challenge the dancers while not knocking them off their perch. The same can’t be said for Antonia Franceschi’s new Kinderszenen, set to Allen Shawn’s Childhood Scenes, which is itself a bow to Schumann’s Kinderszenen. Franceschi’s piece is also for three men and three women, casting them in flirtatious and playful mood. The problem is that the perky couplings and elegant pointework of her vocabulary demand a greater technical sophistication than the dancers possess. It also didn’t help that their sense of projection at the Linbury was muted – perhaps they were having to think too much about the steps. This is a piece the company may grow into, but even then I expect the choreography will lack a sufficient sense of its own purpose.

Martin Lawrance’s Pendulum has no such problem. It’s a contemporary duet that gives its dancers (Cira Robinson and Hugo Cortes on opening night) the freedom to take the muscular moves on their own terms. Set to Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music (which sounds like a heartbeat in a thunderstorm), the dance unfolds like a kind of competition played out in an atmosphere of edgy anticipation. Each performer has a chance to display his or her prowess before being absorbed into the closeness of their common ground.

The third premiere, Will Tuckett’s D?pouillement, is the most accomplished. Tuckett helpfully provides a programme note defining his starting point. His chosen music, Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, was based, he explains, “upon Debussy’s notion of d?pouillement, or economy of means.” The music, like the dance, is “stripped down to the bone”.

The choreography (again for three couples) has a clean edge and a strong and distinctive personality that exudes warmth despite the gravity of its landscape. One man and one woman stand out from the rest, isolated by their outsider status until their tender lyrical duet affords them a special aura.