It’s rather a scandal that Ballet Black get no regular Arts Council support and yet proportionally they do far more to put new work out there and also before a public that is not your usual ballet crowd. I truly can’t think of a UK ballet company that stretches out more and further in all directions.
All companies routinely talk about taking ballet forward with new work and their proud achievements on education and inclusivity etc and not without some justification, of course. But the big ballet companies are to a degree trapped by their numbers and costs and that means everything is expensive and that means new work is not so plentiful and they come to rely on known big sellers that appeal to what can seem mainly white and elderly audiences. (I’m talking in gross and sweeping tones to make the point – all companies are different of course, some much better than others). Ballet Black just do mixed bills of work (other than their Children’s ballet) and their new public, young and old, lap it up. Each year they do one, or two, or even three new works and they are central to the year’s touring. New is their default and while others find it difficult to sell new work around the country, they don’t. And the Arts Council should reward that with money taken from companies where new is not the default.
This year Ballet Black are presenting their second season at the Barbican and it’s typical of what we expect of them – two new works on a triple bill with another recent work made for them in 2012. It’s a cleverly constructed bill that reads 4 stars on paper I think – a classical piece, a contemporary piece and a modern narrative work. All by class choreographers, it’s an interesting sweep that filled the Barbican for the entire 3 night run.
The first new work was Michael Corder’s House of Dreams and it did look handsome and also testing – Corder is renowned for never being short on steps. To some lyrical and flowing Debussy piano, for 2 couples, it uses 3 pdd and a finale to show all human emotions – at least that’s what the programme note indicates. Like all good work it wafts you along with its flow and I particularly liked the sensuality and smoothness of Sayaka Ichikawa and Damien Johnson. In terms of fully delivering on its promise House of Dreams is the success of the night and really underlines the classical chops of the company – nothing ropey here.
Martin Lawrance’s Captured was being reprised and although it’s not an easy piece, based on a Shostakovich’s string quartet No 11, you can see why. As you’d expect of Lawrence, who follows in the Alston tradition (he is an ex Richard Alston Dance Company dancer and now its Associate Choreographer) it’s full of quality, beefy movement intimately linked to the music. It’s a challenging score and the movement is bruisingly challenging too – for dancers and the audience. It’s not a piece I warm to – it seems constructed as if to tell a story but you haven’t a clue as to what it might be and I couldn’t shake off the wish to interpret what was happening and irritatingly got nowhere. But if nothing else it underlines the quality and versatility of the company in jumping from Corder’s emotional classicism to pushing contemporary movement.
The headline piece of the bill was courtesy of the award-winning Colombian-Belgian choreographer, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, well known in the UK for choreographing Scottish Ballet’s A Streetcar Named Desire and more recently English National Ballet’s colourful piece about the life of Frida Kahlo, (Broken Wings). Ochoa’s Red Riding Hood takes the fairytale as a base and makes it a story of today and the coming of age of the protagonist. Led out by Cira Robinson with Mthuthuzeli November as the Wolf/Devil character with the longest and raunchiest tail you’ve ever seen, there is much fun and well observed drama on display as hormones fizz and sex is never far away. Other than some general programme notes there is no synopsis and you largely interpret the scenes yourself – some a model of clarity and some much less so, as if unedited. Which is odd because a dramaturg was involved who I’ve always felt was really there to make things lucid and clear. It’s a piece which will become clearer with time and anyway there is more than enough in it to please – the Ballet Black audience chuckled throughout and cheered mightily and long come the end. Another success of a night for Ballet Black – no change there. Arts Council take note.