Storytelling with spirit: Ballet Black in The Suit and A Dream within A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Barbican Theatre, London
March 16, 2018

Maggie Foyer

There is a very special buzz that accompanies Ballet Black performances. The Barbican Theatre was packed, the audience reflected London’s multicultural mix, arriving with every intention of enjoying a good night out, and the company did not disappoint.

A seemingly odd subject, Can Themba’s short story, The Suit, proved a serendipitous choice and Cathy Marston’s slightly surreal approach injects a vibrant spirit. The Suit, in the story belongs to a hastily departing lover, Simon, and is used by revengeful husband, Philemon, to humiliate his wife. The suit joins them at meals and even on outings. In a highly imaginative manner, Marston uses the company not only as ensemble but also to create the setting. They are on hand to pass a shoe, remove a shirt, become a mirror or represent the basin for an early morning wash.  It’s a tough tale, fast paced but laced with irony and packed with real characters.

Cira Robinson in Cathy Marston's The SuitPhoto Bill Cooper
Cira Robinson in Cathy Marston’s The Suit
Photo Bill Cooper

The quality choreography comes in the pas de deux. Cira Robinson as wife Matilda, is on top form, her technique stronger than ever and her dramatic skills finely honed. She has two romantic liaisons, slipping almost imperceptibly from the arms of her husband to those of her lover. The duets are delicious. With Philemon, tall, strong José Alves, the relationship is tender and sensual and if he had resisted that final pirouette he might not have forgotten his briefcase and, well… Enter Mthuthuzeli November as Simon the suave lover to sweep her off her feet in a duet that has its share of innovation in a mood playful and physical.

The ensemble has a breakout moment in the park. November adds an authentic touch with a liquid gold display of phatha-phatha dance. In the party setting, the public display of Mathilda’s shame burns ever deeper, and Robinson reaches down into a reservoir of dramatic skills as in fast-paced drama, her despair drives her to suicide leaving Philemon with only that suit for consolation.

Isabela Coracy and Marie Astrid Mence in A Dream within A Midsummer Night's DreamPhoto Bill Cooper
Isabela Coracy and Marie Astrid Mence
in A Dream within A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo Bill Cooper

The second half provided the comic relief with Arthur Pita’s de(con)struction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It opens with a formal classical line up in tutus, tiaras and pointe shoes. But their haughtiness is soon deflated in a shower of fairy dust sprinkled by Isabela Coracy, a flower power Puck who sets about mismanaging affairs. Handel is replaced by Earthy Kitt’s husky timbre singing Birds Do It, Bees Do It and we’re transported to a tropical kingdom probably not located outside Athens.

The confusion of lovers is given a further dimension as Helena (Sayaka Ichikawa) and Hermia (Marie Astrid Mence) give up on the quarrelling men and exit arm in arm. Oberon (Alves) shacks up with Lysander (Ebony Thomas) and the delicious Cira Robinson as Titania seems to be the only one going straight; well not quite as she’s having it off with the Bottom alias the donkey, a distinctly cuddly November. Robinson, exotically draped and equipped with a pink parasol is imperious, sexy and utterly captivating, scores again in her sensual duet with Alves as they dance, bathed in violet light.

Jean-Marc Puissant’s designs and Pita’s theatricality are used to good effect in economic staging, for example the black chiffon scarf that creates nightfall allowing the couples to enter the forest.

These ballets are a neat fit for a company where each dancer must be a performer; able to define a character in dance. Each work offers challenges: technically in the range of styles and inventive partnering, and dramatically in both high comedy and powerful drama.

And finally, top marks to Freeds who have joined other manufacturers and are now producing pointe shoes in two shades of brown to match darker skins.