Opinion editor and arts contributor, Kitty Wenham, celebrates Ballet Black’s innovative and modern approach to classical dance in their latest double bill at the York Theatre Royal.
In the shadows of a pitch-black stage, six dancers take their positions. The little remaining light in the room illuminates their silhouettes, and you can see the outline of three enchanting lace tutus as if they were sparkling – or perhaps glowing from within. It’s an image that never fails to make me smile. I am reminded of Pita’s 2016 piece for Ballet Black, ‘Cristaux’, which featured a dancer wearing a tutu covered in 2,000 Swarovski crystals. Next to me my mother audibly gasps. “This is what ballet is supposed to be like!” she whispers, as the stage lights up. The three couples begin to perform a traditional dance to a regal Handel composition, and then all hell breaks loose.
The last time I went to the ballet with my mother, we made a special trip to see a grandiose performance of The Nutcracker at London’s O2 centre just before Christmas. This was over ten years ago. Though my memory has since faded into the blur of a catch-it-or-you’ll-miss-it pirouette, I’m sure it was a beautiful rendition. However, whether you believe Tchaikovsky’s ballets are unrivalled classics or overdue a long retirement, the venue was far too large and too impersonal to appreciate the technique, artistry and brilliant musical scores that makes ballet such a wonderful artform, so it remained underappreciated. Since then, my relationship with dance has vastly changed, and I find myself dedicating quite possibly too much time trying to justify to friends, family and acquaintances that ballet has so much more to offer than classical versions of Cinderella or staid renditions of Swan Lake. Of course, the romantic ballets make my heart swell, but it was the work of Kenneth Macmillan and other outsiders who first showed me just how much more ballet can be. My favourite ballets are raw, passionate, exciting, turbulent and overflowing with emotion. Ballet Black’s programme is bold and innovative; and the work of choreographers Cathy Marston and Arthur Pita encapsulates the same kind of blazing spirit that made me fall in love with ballet in the first place.
Ballet Black was founded in 2001 by Cassa Pancho, MBE, to address the shocking lack of space for dancers of black and Asian descent in the ballet world. The company, choreographers, and dancers, have been nominated for and won countless prestigious awards, and on their website, they state that their chief aim is to bring ballet to a more culturally diverse audience. There is no doubt that they have already been phenomenally successful in this pursuit. When Pancho formed the company, she had just finished her dissertation looking at the lack of black women in ballet in the UK. Her research found that, at the time, there were no professional black ballerinas in any of Britain’s major companies. That Pancho has worked hard to change this and the inherent racism of the ballet world is evident as soon as we sit down, even in our small Yorkshire theatre. Though I’m still mostly surrounded by older, white theatregoers, the audience is more diverse than I’ve ever seen it.
Ballet Black’s current programme is refreshing, and the company’s strengths lie not only in their inclusivity, but also their artistic diversity. I’m never bored, which, even for a die-hard balletomane like myself, is a remarkable feat. Marston and Pita are both experienced and accomplished choreographers with a lot to offer, and they represent everything that is exciting about the emerging journey of modern ballet. The stories are strong in both pieces, and the lack of divertissements makes my heart sing, whilst time flies fast. Everything seems over far too soon.
The show begins with Marston’s adaption of Can Themba’s famous short story, ‘The Suit’. Though it opens with an ethereal and romantic pas de deux between a man and his wife, the story soon takes on a much darker tone. The rest of the company bears witness, moving across the stage with a sense of foreboding doom, even as the lovers dote on one another, oblivious, in bed. Sayaka Ichikawa, who plays the wife in this performance, is the only female dancer on pointe, and this lack of reliance on a classical, but painful technique makes this choreography especially singular, demonstrating expertly that beautiful ballet does not have to torture its dancers, or remain hopelessly in the past.
‘The Suit’ is a haunting tale of a collapsing marriage and a couple that is tormented by the repercussions of their actions. In the first half, Ichikawa is lascivious and captivating in her movements, there’s a certain mischief in the way she so easily hypnotises the audience. After her husband leaves for work, aided brilliantly by the ensemble cast with choreography that makes the simple action of putting on clothes beautiful to watch, the wife waits anxiously for the arrival of her lover. The two lovers are magnetic in a purely sexual way. Their rendezvous is performed in a routine that doesn’t feel gratuitous or shocking; it’s simply an exquisite, electric pas de deux. Meanwhile, the audience watches with dread, the choreography on the opposite side of the stage making it almost painfully obvious that the husband has left his suitcase at home. Everyone around him, the universe even, seems to be conspiring in an almost supernatural way to make him notice this digression, to make him return home. Yet there is no perverse gratification in these scenes. Instead, it feels like we are being compelled to watch without judgement. Quietly tense, the audience waits in silent anticipatory pressure. We are no jury, merely helpless onlookers unable to change the inevitable turn of events.
The music and movement of the chorus plays subtle homage to the story’s setting during the South African Apartheid, though the tone of the piece is mostly sombre. The set is minimalist, so your attention is drawn to the dancers and their emotions. When he finally returns home, as we expect, to find his wife in bed with another man, the husband’s disbelief and pain is palpable, expertly communicated by dancer José Alvez. The rest of the story unfolds slowly, as the husband enacts his vindictive, humiliating revenge; the wife must treat the suit left behind by her lover as a third guest in the house – eating with them, sleeping with them, even going out with them. At a vibrant gathering, encouraged to reconcile by their fellow partygoers, they move together tenderly, and Marston allows you to briefly believe that they might be able to forgive each other. But it’s not to be. The husband’s hubris overtakes this moment of potential romance, and his rage manifests physically. His wife is driven to suicide, the husband, discovering her, is left alone in his anguish. It’s an eerie, intense, and memorable story.
On the other hand, Ballet Black’s rendition of Shakespeare’s classic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, couldn’t be more different. It is joyous, and unpredictable. The use of music is eclectic, but effective. Beginning with the traditional dance to Handel’s music, the prototypical ballerinas that made my mother gasp are frozen in glittering time and joined on stage by a grinning imp, who sports a ridiculous beard and boy scout uniform. At his touch the dancers are transformed from disciplined to deviant. The piece uses everything from classical music and classic Hollywood songs, to pop tunes. The result is chaotic, hypnotic, and strange. It is faithful to Shakespeare’s story, but with a healthy injection of modernisation. There is same-sex love, an appearance by Salvador Dalí, and at one point, a dancer snorts a line of fairy dust. None of Shakespeare’s comedy is lost, and the audience is raucous. Seamlessly blending the traditional and the new, Pita’s dichotomy is all parts entertaining, enjoyable and amusing.
Once again, never hindered by the smaller size of their company, Ballet Black has proved themselves to be one of the true and best innovators in the dance world. If there was ever any worry that ballet has become so antiquated that it risks making itself irrelevant or obsolete, Cassa Pancho’s brilliant troupe will restore your faith in the longevity of one of theatre’s oldest surviving traditions.
Ballet Black will begin a new tour of two world premieres, starting at the Barbican Theatre, on the 14th March 2019. See here for more information. See here for our interview with Cassa Pancho.