Ballet Black at the Linbury: Then or Now and The Waiting Game

Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London
November 3, 2021.

Ballet Black continues to lead the pack with their current programme of two quality works, Will Tuckett’s Then or Now and Mthuthuzeli November’s The Waiting Game. Both are new commissions, very different in style but balancing neatly.

Tuckett, like many artists, looks to the big issues that face us and can no longer be ignored. He uses the poems of Adrienne Rich to drive the message home. The feminist’s powerful words add meaning and at times urgency to an otherwise abstract work. It is expertly structured with overlaps, interchanges and liminal boundaries shaping the piece. The opening theme, danced with quiet elegance by Cira Robinson, is classical and contained, and shards of the movement emerge throughout the ballet. There is traditional partnering alternating with male and female duets and a bounty of challenging choreography as dancers alternate from sitting on the periphery to dancing centre stage.

The music, Heinrich Biber’s Passacaglia, a virtuoso highpoint of Baroque violin music, here arranged and recorded by Daniel Pioro, is one of the major delights of the evening. The musical line is as delicate and as strong as a spider’s web and superbly suited to contemporary ballet. The eight Ballet Black dancers charged it with their individual personalities, but this is a work that I hope will also have iterations with other companies, as it is well worth revisiting.

Ballet Black in The Waiting Game by Mthuthuzeli November
Photo Bill Cooper

The Waiting Game is a bold move from young Mthuthuzeli November who manages to get a handle on existentialism, another theme of our times as we ponder who we are and why we’re here. The central role, written for Astrid Marie Mense, now on maternity leave, was taken over with glee by the choreographer.

A confused young man wonders what life is about. His troubled thoughts materialise into dancers. Dressed in outrageously theatrical black and white costumes, they are always on hand to nag, to trip him up, to cajole and to trick. His suitcase and hat are on hand as he feels he ought to be going somewhere, but never gets there. All this is cleverly transposed into movement which the dancers enrich with wicked humour. It is Sayaka Ichikawa who takes the lead, first inviting him from atop the door, then teasing him in a witty and provocative duet. The door provides endless possibilities, enticing and rejecting by turns and cleverly lit to never seem fully connected.

Mthuthuzeli finally gets beyond the door to reappear in sequinned coat to head a razzle dazzle finale to Etta James 1962 hit, ‘Something’s Got a Hold of Me’. It’s a thought-provoking work delivered in a highly entertaining package and another strong addition to the Ballet Black repertoire.

For more from Ballet Black, Eightfold is now available on demand and free in the UK via All4 by Channel 4.