Ballet Black’s laudable mission of increasing diversity in the classical ballet sphere is visible in the London-based troupe’s own demographics – all of its dancers are of black or Asian descent – as well as the cohort of dancemakers it’s commissioned over the years, many of whom skew outside the standard blueprint for ballet choreographer (read: white, middle-class, male). As founder Cassa Pancho noted in a post-show talk at the company’s recent triple bill at the Barbican, “it’s not just about redressing the lack of diverse bodies on stage but also the stories that are being told. It’s about changing the very gatekeepers of ballet.”
Ingoma, the choreographic debut from Ballet Black junior artist Mthuthuzeli November, tackles this head on by unearthing the powerful story of 60,000 South African miners who took strike action in 1946 to protest low wages enabled by apartheid – a week-long event that sparked nine deaths and more than 1,200 injuries. November’s heady ballet sketches a tense portrait of exhausted workers, heated dissidents and grieving widows, all told through a hybrid of balletic, contemporary and African-inspired choreography. There are a lot of moving parts, some of which drift as the tension spins off in different directions, but what the half-hour piece lacks in structural solidity it makes up for in moving performances. It’s not the strike’s abstract web of racial and capitalist politics that November trains his lens on, but its tangible human collateral – a shrewd spotlight that lends accessibility.
José Alves is our lone rebel, grasping for solidarity as his fellow workers look on wearily from the dusty caverns of a coal mine (emulated here with clods of earth scattered at stage right). Formidably strong, with extraordinary rhythm, Alves leads the six-strong ensemble in deep, swaying plies and complex sequences of righteous stomps and claps. Group chants arouse an air of tight, chest-swelling community, while Sakaya Ichikawa, playing Alves’s wife, shines a light on individual pain, whipping her arms in distress as she curls into her husband’s robust frame. Her sturdy, defiant solos are a highlight, and so is a haunting female quartet, the women of the group chugging together in a poignant display of fluttering, undulating bodies.
With its elaborate suite of costumes and props – ropes, pickaxes, headlamps, bags of coal – as well as a weighty original score by Peter Johnson, Ingoma approaches the aesthetic heights of a far bigger-scale production. Its choreography is slow-burning at times, with no central climax, but the journey of emotions is energising all the same.
It’s a lighter, punchier energy in Sophie Laplane’s new work Click!, a whirlwind of technicolour pantsuits and jazzy hip swivels à la Janelle Monáe. Isabela Coracy is the centrepiece, a neon sun for the rainbow-clad ensemble to revolve around. Her rhythm is instinctive, an organic current that surges through every inch of her jolting hips and twizzling shoulders. Ebony Thomas also shines, piloting a riveting geometry of angles that takes in flexed feet and sharp-slanted knees.
The piece is set to a medley of songs, from clickety-clack oldies to a simple metronome of fingers snapping, and the choreography likewise careens: there’s brash bopping, sultry grooving, lyrical duets with snaking torsos. The personality is strong, but tonally it’s all over the place. And the use of pointe shoes, while ambitious, feels misplaced, producing a helter-skelter of clashing beats and postures.
Martin Lawrance’s duet Pendulum, created in 2009 and reprised here on November and Ichikawa, is more coherent, neatly braiding classroom steps with sharp struts and lurches. The choreographic language is snug, muscular, conjuring the swinging nature of the work’s title with tilts and counterbalances, the pair using each other as a fulcrum for vacillating shapes. There’s more power than control in some of these manoeuvres, with a few wobbly balances on show. Still, November glistens in long, graceful lines, while Ichikawa is faultless in her turns, delivering several pristine rounds of fouettes.