I’ve long admired Ballet Black’s efforts to make ballet a more accessible art form to both dancers and audiences who’ve historically been excluded from it. The eight-strong company consists entirely of black and Asian dancers – a far cry from your average classical troupe – and has endeavoured, quite successfully, to design a repertoire that appeals to balletomanes and newcomers alike.
Each year Ballet Black launches and tours a bill of new works – a treat for those of us eager to keep tabs on its progress. The 2016 offering points to another fruitful year, with the company’s six senior artists looking ever more seasoned and two new apprentices slotting in nicely with their senior counterparts. The programme features brand-new pieces from Arthur Pita and Christopher Marney, plus a restaging of Christopher Hampson’s 2012 ballet Storyville. Recent years have seen new bills unveiled at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio, but it’s currently undergoing renovations, so the Barbican Theatre was subbed in for 2016 – just as well since it seats nearly three times as many people, and the programme proves an in-demand show year on year.
From Pita came Crystaux, a Balanchine-inspired duet that celebrates crystals and their mesmerising refractions of light. Cira Robinson took on the female role, looking every inch the music box ballerina as she bourréed around to tinkering music, her bejeweled tutu glittering at every turn. Her partner, a very competent Mthuthuzeli November, was something of a foil, meeting her floaty footwork and snaking port de bras with sharp, angular poses and grounded lunges.
The piece is not exactly a love story – the male dancer appears both entranced by and desperate to resist the ballerina – but a sense of intimacy quickly emerges, peaking during the pair’s snug final pas de deux, a swirl of balletic lifts and interlaced limbs. Robinson and November’s form felt a little stiff at times, particularly during their repeated gallops around the stage, but their agreeable chemistry, and their success in slotting Pita’s swift choreographic pivots into the tricky rhythms of Steve Reich’s glockenspiel score, made it an altogether lovely number.
Marney’s dreamy To Begin, Begin is more straightforwardly romantic, its leads (Sayaka Ichikawa and Jacob Wye) cast as soulmates finding their way to each other. Four supporting dancers step in with a smattering of duets that presage the principals’ union: one pair’s string of falling penchés and abandoned leaps calls to mind the heady rapture of falling in love, while another’s tender, measured embraces evoke the image of a devoted couple in their later years.
Central to the piece is a soft wave of cerulean silk shared between the six dancers – an evocative prop and transitional device in one. The sheet alternates as a shroud, a cape, a tent; at one point it’s stretched to form a waving shell around Ichikawa, the oyster to her pearl. Gripping though it was, the sheet never overwhelmed the dancers, who doled out phrase after phrase of gorgeous choreography, a stimulating blend of luxurious stretches and rapid twists. Bar a few shaky moments by the men during the supporting duets, the cast gave excellent performances all around, Ichikawa in particular, who matched her incredible flexibility with an impeccable show of control. To me, she epitomises what I’ve come to see as Ballet Black’s forte: delivering deeply felt performances that eschew trickery and flash but still register as complex.
While Storyville is the only non-premiere on the ticket, it actually appeared to be the least developed of the three, frequently losing its stride to the quick-moving narrative, which sees a young girl named Nola (Robinson) fall prey to the predatory villains of New Orleans’ red light district. The colourful piece falls somewhere between a musical and a ballet, adding in the odd vaudevillian twist, like old-timey signs that alert us to certain characters and plot developments. It’s got more than a whiff of A Streetcar Named Desire about it, right down to its seedy setting, boudoir-inspired costuming and desperate heroine.
Cramming what could easily constitute a full-evening performance into a half-hour work doesn’t leave a lot of room for phrasing, but Hampson has managed to fit some excellent sequences in, including erotic sashaying numbers and cutesy frolics between lovers. Robinson proved a treat of a protagonist, expertly conveying her character’s naivety with doe eyes and a hopeful smile; Ichikawa, meanwhile, delivered a delicious turn as Nola’s icy abuser, Lulu, gifting us a character who’s threatening and alluring in equal measure. She and Joshua Harriette’s sleazy Mack made a very sexy duo, all fevered grasps and violent fumbles, while Damien Johnson’s sailor brought some welcome sweetness to this biting story.
Depth, emotion, nuance – between them, this bill’s pieces bring all this and more. Catch it while you can.