We flow, we change shape, we remain resilient: Ballet Black in Like Water

December 29, 2020

Maggie Foyer

This may be the worst of times for the theatre, but it may well be the best of times for a talented black voice to speak out. Sub-Saharan African culture is predominantly oral and has left us no great books but there is an abundance of stories and lived experience. The Atlantic slave trade is seminal in black history and each of the transported millions would have a tale to tell.

Mthuthuzeli November, who created and choreographed the 9-minute dance film Like Water, takes the story to another level using the sea as a metaphor. That huge restless body of water whose waves lap the shores of Africa and the Americas, carried ships transporting Africans traded as commodities, carried the suffering and welcomed the dead beneath its waves. It separated but also provided the only link back to home.

Like Water is a short film, a potent poetic moment expressed in movement, visuals and sounds on a bleak stretch of sand. The camera follows November walking between high stone rocks, speaking Asisipho Malunga’s powerful words in Xhosa and English. The opening text tells of the resilience of ancestors, pride in identity and a reclaiming of inheritance. Five dancers stand waiting in bare feet on the sandy shore, rooted in the moment and owning the space.

Each dancer has an opportunity to tell their story in signature dance patterns, the first more individual but later sharing a mood of fierce intensity. Between there are moments when the group unifies in the organic flow of a collective body following Georgina Lloyd-Owen’s music that melds with the cadence of the breaking waves.

The camera moves in as passions build, filming in close-up the bodies pulsing, heaving and falling. They start to run, running for their lives with Alexander Fadayiro outpacing the rest. He crashes into the sand behind a chair where José Alves sits gazing out over the sea. His arms rise in pleading gestures, hands gripped in sorrow, his pain visible in his tense body. The words tell of centuries of injustice and the camera pans to bodies strewn over the sand. But the final shot of the dancers has Marie Astrid Mence gazing defiantly into the future. Staying alive is itself an act of resistance.

The other two dancers, Isabela Coracy and Ebony Thomas, also deserve mention in what is an ensemble piece of total commitment. The film director and editor, Nauris Buksevics has done an excellent job of unobtrusive low-key documentation. It’s a small-scale triumph for Ballet Black.

Like Water by Mthuthuzeli November can we watch at balletblack.co.uk. 3-day access costs £3.