Review – Ballet Black Triple Bill

Ballet Black Triple Bill (featuring Storyville)
The Barbican, London
18th March 2016

If you’ve not heard of or seen Ballet Black before, I urge you to get onto YouTube and check out their work. They were founded in 2001 by Cassa Pancho and Denzil Bailey, as a company to showcase the talents of dancers of black and Asian heritage. They’re a really well-loved company, especially here in London where they’re based. They have a training academy here too. In fact, one of the really nice things about coming to a Ballet Black show is that there always seems to be a lot of kids, teenagers, young people and their families in the audience – which goes to show how committed they are to teaching and learning I think, and getting young people and their families involved in the world of ballet. Which is great, and makes for a really fun audience experience too.

One of the notable things about the company is that it’s small – there’s only 8 dancers. This means that in effect everyone is functioning like a soloist, and everyone is incredibly strong on stage, as you can imagine.

Friday’s show opened with two more abstract pieces, the first of which was Cristaux. It’s all about the play and dance of light, reflecting and refracting, from crystals – so the Balanchine influence is clear. It features some stunning costuming by Swarovski, with the ballerina (this evening Cira Robinson) appearing as a kind of Metropolis Fairy with a huge Deco-style style tiara made from crystal. The piece is a pas de deux and one of the things I noticed about is that both dancers kept their legs relivately low. There wasn’t a huge amount of massive extension, just clean and strong controlled lines.

Towards the end of piece a huge crystal pendulum appears as if from nowhere, swinging right across the breadth of stage and continuing until it comes to a stop. It seems almost dangerous, as the dancers execute the higher lifts, as if the ballerina could collide with it. There’s a real sense of peril! The beams of light from the pendulum and also the tiara beam out into the audience like searchlights, which i also found quite thrilling. The dancers throughout are not exactly unsmiling, but they do keep their facial expression neutral, which adds an air of ambiguity to the piece too.

This is in contrast to the second piece of the evening, To Begin, Begin. It starts in a seemingly more sober manner, with the dancers in blues and greys, and uses large lengths of fabric to create moving sculptures on stage. It portrays a journey of romantic discovery, and the 6 dancers on stage break off in different configurations, but consistently come back together into pas de deux. There’s playful moments, like when the fabric is used like bedsheets for a romantic vignette. The piece works towards an uplifting ending, with some gorgeous music. A small thing, but what i noticed in particular was the way the dancers were smiling, beaming into each others faces in a really intimate and joyful way.

The headline of the bill is Storyville. When I saw Ballet Black for the first time, the last time they were at the Royal Opera House’s studio theatre with a mixed bill, I came away really impressed and moved by their storytelling abilities – so I was especially excited to see this. Storyville is set in 1915 New Orleans, and the music takes inspiration from that era of Jazz. It makes use of very few props, absolutely no stage scenery, and the costuming remains subtle. This means that the story is told on the strength of the acting alone, which is really impressive. The piece does make use of silent film-style text on cards to introduce characters and move the action forward in time, which is a really nice touch and done in quite a knowing, humorous way.

Storyville tells the story of Nola, a girl who arrives in New Orleans full of hopeful innocence. She becomes a dancer, and soon becomes known as one of the best – and most lucrative – dancers at Lulu White’s club. At the same time, she falls in love with a sailor, who Lulu White is none too impressed by. White and her henchman/lover Mack warn Nola off her lover, and off men in general, telling her to “stay perpendicular”. However at the same time they curiously enact a potent seduction upon Nola. In her imagination they become transformed into the Voodoo King and Queen and her childhood toy, brought with her to the big city, becomes a voodoo doll as she is played with, tossed about and stuck with pins. White and Mack give her beautiful jewellery, a diamond bracelet and choker which become symbolic of the life she is becoming entrapped by. She’s hypnotised by the jewels, but some jealous dancers and club patrons make her drunk and steal them from her. One year later we find her hooked on booze, a kind of Billie Holliday figure who is supremely talented yet addicted. Drunk and stumbling, she’s seen desperately clawing at what remains of her talent and love for dancing, in a really touching moment from Cira Robinson. Nola’s sailor lover, who she has spurned, appears once more to try to save her, but the Voodoo King and Queen have other plans and she design his arms.

The performance and the quality of acting from the dancers was really superb; Cira Robinson as Nola really stood out in particular for with her range of expression. If I had one criticism it would be that I wanted more from the piece in certain moments – just slightly more time to really dance out, for example, Nola’s broken stumbling dreams, and maybe more in the way of costuming perhaps to really underline the razzle-dazzle of the time and place.

Ballet Black are at the Barbican tonight, 19th March, then touring. Learn more about the company at balletblack.co.uk

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