Ballet Black at the Barbican Theatre, London
March 19, 2016
Ballet Black is a unique company defined on one level by their black and Asian origins but also by the commitment and enthusiasm of the eight dancers. Cutting edge? Well, not really. Mainstream? Definitely not. With a repertoire of predominantly commissioned works, their special qualities inspire choreographers to experiment and move into previously unexplored territory.
Arthur Pita’s Cristaux is a new departure for both himself and the company: hardnosed formalist ballet. The brittle high-velocity buzz of Steve Reich’s Drumming Part lll sets the pace matched by Cira Robinson’s tremulous bourrées that traverse the stage. Her gem encrusted tutu is complemented by the set of pendulous crystals and lighting (by David Plater) that etch the space. Mthuthuzeli November, still an apprentice, rose to the challenge of a fiercely demanding duet. Pita alternates the sharp static movements with a circling motif the exploited November’s fluidity and speed. Although he still needs to hone the classical edge to his technique, he is a joy to watch.
Christopher Marney’s To Begin, Begin slotted happily between the classical and the narrative with shades of each. Six dancers and a sheet of pale blue silk interpret a flowing watery score from Dustin O’Halloran. Deftly manoeuvred by the dancers, it roused the imagination and added a new dimension to the dance.
Storyville is a reworked and extended version of Christopher Hampson’s popular work written for the company in 2012. It gave the packed audience what they had been waiting for – a ballet filled with dramatic characters and a rush of full-blooded emotion.
Set in a dance hall in New Orleans it is the story of Nola, a naïve young girl drawn into prostitution and ruin. It offers Robinson a role that suits her strengths: technical and interpretative. She captured the freshness and vulnerability of Nola who, still hugging her doll, meets Lulu and Mack who entice her into a darker world. Lulu, Sayaka Ichikawa, is as vicious a madam as you hope never to meet but her charm is undeniable. She dominates the stage as she instructs Nola how to fleece a customer and ‘stay perpendicular’.
As Nola’s dreams turn to nightmares, the pair return in a savage, black comedy scene, heightened by the Voodoo masks. Robinson eloquently depicts Nola’s struggle to disguise the reality of her situation from her sailor lover, but he leaves her. Damien Johnston cuts a convincing figure but has a difficult task sustaining the character through his fleeting visits.
Kurt Weill’s music has the right sardonic edge to colour the drama, while his ‘Lost in the Stars’ song captures the poignancy of a lost life. It is a well told story, played out in an overtly emotional manner and it works brilliantly.
Ballet Black are now touring to June 22. For dates and venues click here.