Then or Now, The Waiting Game
London, Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House
3 November 2021
Film adaptation available at barbican.org.uk, November 22-28
Ballet Black’s 20-year-long diversity mission still feels urgent, and its latest double bill is an impressive reminder of the sort of talent and vision that could otherwise go overlooked.
The first piece is the most demanding and arguably yields the greater rewards. The cosseting space of the Linbury enhances the intimacy of Then or Now, Will Tuckett’s third commission for Cassa Pancho’s company, which blends Biber’s 1676 Passacaglia for solo violin with poems taken from Adrienne Rich’s collection Dark Fields of the Republic.
The eight dancers, who all remain on stage throughout, sitting on white chairs that also become props, respond to both. Sometimes they literally enact the words – for Sending Love, for instance, they playfully pass an imaginary package of energy from one to another. More often they describe bodily responses to the big themes that Rich mines – primarily love and war, the personal and the political – and the delicate textures of Daniel Pioro’s (recorded) violin playing. Deep connections are intimated with a lightness of touch: one dancer rubbing her head along another’s arm, one resting his head on his partner’s thigh. They lock together satisfyingly in clockwork movement, hold poses with gentle patience.
When Rich’s verses veer towards the densely imagistic it can feel as if too much is vying for your attention – pause mentally to consider, say, “a cat drinks from a bowl of marigolds”, and you’re distracted from the movement. But whenever Cira Robinson takes centre stage she demands your full focus – featherweight in her twisting lifts, insistent as she passes among the others with pas de bourree, defiantly strong in her pas de deux or trois.
The Waiting Game, the second piece from dancer/choreographer Mthuthuzeli November, also uses spoken word, planting us in the mind of a man in the midst of an existential crisis. November himself takes the lead role, swept along by the daily grind and constantly eyeing a doorway that promises escape but keeps moving tantalisingly out of reach.
The rest of the company emerge from this portal, decked out in patched-together Pierrot black-and-white. Among these sprite-like mischief makers, Sayaka Ichikawa teases and tugs at him like a nagging manifestation of his innermost thoughts. When he finally makes it through the door, November re-emerges in a gold-sequinned ringmaster’s jacket, grooving with the rest to Etta James in a burst of cutely infectious joy. The dramatic thrust of it all is pretty flabby, but it’s a fun piece nonetheless.