September 27, 2023
They do sound the most unlikely of bedfellows: Black Sabbath, the rock band that spawned heavy metal, and ballet. But any doubts are put aside immediately. The opening of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Black Sabbath ballet that sees an ensemble of black clad dancers emerge from the upstage gloom before exploding into action under a sea of spotlights is sleek and modern, but classical too. And it gets better. Whether edgy or sensuous, loud (and it’s never overly so) or quiet, the whole show is electric. It’s exciting and exhilarating.
The ballet comes in three acts, each with its own choreographer, each with its own composer. While that does mean each has a very different feel, Pontus Lidberg as lead choreographer and overall artistic director, and Tony Award-winning Christopher Austin as lead composer and music supervisor, do a great job in making sure the evening gels as a whole.
While the evening features eight Black Sabbath tracks, orchestrated by Austin, put aside any idea that this is some ‘juke box ballet’ in which the songs are loosely stitched together by a weak narrative. With additional new music inspired by the band, including by on-stage metal guitarist Marc Hayward, the show is thematic rather than narrative.
Although ‘Act I: Heavy Metal Ballet’ centres on how Birmingham’s clattering factories influenced heavy metal’s sound, it’s the most abstract of the three. Apart from Cuban choreographer Raúl Reinoso’s fizzing ensemble sections, delicious moments include the ‘Solitude’ pas de deux by Javier Rojas Yaogian Shang, which includes what must surely be the longest ever kiss in ballet. Their lips remain in contact despite the dance’s many tricky twists. Look out too for Tzu-Chao Chou on pointe. Very impressive he is too.
It all happens under 16 lightboxes by designer Alexandre Arrechea that depict images from the band’s history, and that rise and fall. Another familiar sight comes later with their demon logo on an upturned, wrecked car.
The act ends furiously in festival mode with the ensemble all turning speedy fouettés and pirouettes a la seconde. It makes for a great, breathless end to thirty minutes that could easily stand alone as closing part of a conventional triple bill.
In ‘Act II: The Band,’ Brazilian choreographer Cassi Abranches ditches the pointe shoes for sneakers, apart from a gorgeous pas de deux for Céline Gittens and Tyrone Singleton. As the pace slows a little, it’s in this middle section that the ballet gets closest to real life thanks to voiceovers, including by Black Sabbath guitarist and the show’s music consultant Tony Iommi, and Ozzy Osbourne’s wife, Sharon, that bring a few laughs.
But there’s one very affecting story too in which Iommi tells of his 1965 industrial accident that was key to the development of Black Sabbath’s music. Then aged 17 and working in a Birmingham sheet metal factory, he caught his right hand in a machine, tearing off the tips of two fingers, leaving bloody bones sticking out. To continue playing, he fashioned new finger tips out of washing-up liquid bottle caps and slackened his guitar strings, in doing so creating the band’s signature sound.
Abranches’ juxtaposition of speech and dance works surprisingly well, the latter never literally illustrating the former. Duets flow easily into ensemble scenes, inlcuding a cracking one for the men. Even so, the choreography does seem to dip a little, getting overshadowed by the stories we hear. And there are some great one-liners including Ozzy Osbourne recounting how, at the top of their fame, “the cocaine bill was higher than the hotel bill.”
The act also includes Lachlan Monaghan singing, surprising everyone with his impressive vocal range. Black Sabbath is not the first ballet in which a dancer sings, but this was by some distance the best I’ve ever heard.
‘Act III: Everbody is a Fan,’ with choreography by Lidberg himself, turns the focus to the band’s fans, of which I suspect there may well now be more. As the choreography revisits moments from earlier in the evening, dancers appear in Black Sabbath T-shirts. Dancing like free spirits, there are several opportunities to shine individually. Riku Ito took the eye in particular and there’s an all-too-short duet for Chou and Momoko Hirata, and more from Gittens and Singleton. And now the whole cast belt out the songs too.
But for many, the best was yet to come as this particular evening brought a very special one-off surprise with Iommi and guitar joining the dancers. The audience erupted.
Carlos Acosta has often spoken of the need to connect with the city and to reach out to new audiences. Black Sabbath certainly seems to have done that. Box office figures show that 60% of the Birmingham audience had never seen BRB before and 40% had never seen any ballet before. The ballet is a real winner on all counts. Looking at the happy faces and listening to comments at the end, the creative team more than achieved the tricky task of sending everyone home very happy indeed.
Black Sabbath, the ballet, is a wow. And I suspect it doesn’t stop here. I can easily imagine it being adapted for a stadium setting. I also have no doubt that stadium would be filled. This one could run and run.
And so it should because it is hugely enjoyable. Totally irresistible, in fact. Looking at faces, it was impossible not to sense that the dancers were revelling in it as much as the audience. If more proof was needed, there it was in Act III when, with the stage stripped back, they could be seen at the sides, off stage but still dancing away to the fabulous music.
In one voiceover, we hear how the four Black Sabbath band members “together made magic.” Now there is more magic. I don’t recall a Birmingham ballet evening like it. And I’ve seen a lot of them over a lot of years. Black Sabbath is an evening of surprises. But also one that delights at every turn. Ballet perhaps like you have never seen. But a real celebration of two Birmingham jewels: BRB, and the band and its music.
Black Sabbath is at the Birmingham Hippodrome to September 30, 2023, then at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth from October 12-14, and Sadler’s Wells, London from October 18-21. All shows are sold out, but check for returns.