Mark Baldwin & Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Inala – London

<I>Inala</I>.<br />© Tristram Kenton. (Click image for larger version)
© Tristram Kenton. (Click image for larger version)

Mark Baldwin & Ladysmith Black Mambazo

London, Sadler’s Wells
7 July 2015

Inala is Zulu for ‘abundance of goodwill’ and that’s certainly in evidence in this ambitious culture clash production, which brings modern ballet together with the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Enthusiasm alone doesn’t make a show a success, though, and Inala doesn’t quite succeed in melding all that goodwill into a coherent exploration of dance and music from markedly different traditions.

Some background – if the acres of press devoted to this feel-good story have passed you by. LBM are a South African institution, a Zulu male choral group formed in the late 1960s whose uplifting, wall-of-sound arrangements and warm tones are instantly recognisable thanks to their many collaborations (Paul Simon’s Graceland among them). Hearing them perform inspired friends Ella Spira (a composer) and Pietra Mello-Pittman (then with the Royal Ballet) to imagine a stage show where these nine charismatic singers were joined by professional dancers. Spira devised a score, Mark Baldwin came on board as choreographer, and dancers with Royal Ballet and Rambert connections joined the cast. Inala, described as a Zulu ballet, was a hit at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, and is now on its second tour.

Inala.© Tristram Kenton. (Click image for larger version)
© Tristram Kenton. (Click image for larger version)

If the programme’s summary of the songs’ meanings is anything to go by, there seems to be the rough outline of a story of a failed marriage among South African country folk. LBM act out quotidian countryside tasks (fishing etc) but the dance remains fluidly impressionistic. (Shame… I was looking forward to seeing how they’d interpret Zombuya Nini Na, explained as ‘All those cattle I used to pay the dowry should be paid back! When will the cows come back again?’) The idea is you take what you want from the show, but it’s a busy space to negotiate, with all of LBM moving about the stage – and contributing their own high-kicking dance moves with unalloyed glee – and the 12 dancers performing in various combinations.

Baldwin plays with low, grounded, hip-loaded choreography, echoing tribal dance, some neo-classicism and some animalistic movement – the barefoot dancers frequently don Georg Meyer-Wiel’s striking bird headdresses for strutting solos and group dances. Jacob O’Connell, recent winner of the BBC Young Dancer’s contemporary section, brings a forceful majesty to his moves; Camille Bracher and Che Milani have a thrumming energy. But it never really feels like we establish what a Western-based danced response actually brings to the music. There are neo-classical duets that add a sense of narrative for Westerners because we are tuned to understand those moves, but it doesn’t open up the music any more for us. In fact, the two traditions here often seem to be waving at each other with polite enthusiasm across a chasm.

Inala.© Tristram Kenton. (Click image for larger version)
© Tristram Kenton. (Click image for larger version)

Spira’s score doesn’t help a lot either. The joy of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in full flow is that their soaring multi-layered harmonies are complete in themselves, so the addition of violin, cello and piano just muddies their sound. And surely to keep adding cicada and ‘jungle’ noises to the soundtrack (and, dear God, was that an elephant trumpeting?), to evoke ‘exotic’ Africa is just a bit tired?

All that said, Inala is by no means a terrible show: there’s some lovely dancing and LBM are undoubtedly its warm heart, with their gentle humour and effortless-looking ability to create spine-tingling harmonies. It’s just not as daring and involving as it might have been.

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