Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Stunning - Ballet Black's Triple Bill

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Ballet Black, Triple Bill (Pendulum, Click! Ingoma) Barbican Theatre, 17 March 2019 15:00

I see a lot of dance every year and one of my highlights every year is Ballet Black.  I usually see them in London (whenever I can get a ticket because they perform to packed houses) and again when they go on tour.  I have come to expect a lot from them and they have never failed to meet my expectations.

Their matinee at the Barbican last Sunday was stunning.  I mean that quite literally and I was not the only one.  Neither the family to my left nor the one to my right could get up after the performance.  We just sat still coming to terms with what we had seen on stage.  When we found the strength to move I clambered up the stairs and slumped into the first unoccupied chair.  There I stayed for a couple of hours until I was forced to sprint to the Circle Line to avoid being marooned in London.

I had brought my Chromebook with me with a view to reviewing the triple bill while it was still fresh in my mind but when I tried to write it I found it was just too soon.  The words would not flow.  However, I did make notes. I wrote that Mthuthzeli November's Ingoma was the most impressive new work that I had seen in a while. It is a work of considerable substance. It is all the more remarkable in that it was created by one so young.

According to the programme, Ingoma means "prayer" in Xhosa. In this case the Lord's Prayer though I had guessed that before I read the note. The performance began with the house lights burning.  Two miners came on stage carrying their equipment. They were joined shortly by the rest of the cast dressed identically irrespective of gender.  November mentioned two strikes in his programme note: one in the 1940s that had been suppressed brutally by the authorities and a more recent one at Marikana in post-apartheid South Africa which was also put down violently.  While I think there was more to the ballet than that there was a scene where Ebony Thomas seemed to fall to a rat-tat-tat that reminded me of automatic gunfire.

For me, the most moving part was the women's dance in the last phase of the piece.  It was danced with considerable energy by the company's four female members dressed identically in light blue smocks and head ties.  Having lived through the 1984-1985 miners strike 7 miles from Barnsley I can attest how it was the women who kept the coalfield communities intact - and indeed still do even though the mines are long gone. Having been married to an African for 27 years I was reminded of my sisters in law, strong, fierce women. Just as in the choreography.  It took a lot of courage to be a miner and perhaps, even more, to be married to one. There were always threats of accidents. pneumoconiosis and poverty even when the men were not on strike.  All of that fierceness and passion came through in that dance.

The piece was greeted enthusiastically even in London which never had mining and has now lost its heavy industry.  I think ti will strike a chord when it goes on tour.  It may have been set in South Africa but it will speak to folk here in a way that few other works can.  This is not the first time Ballet Black has moved me. It did so the first time I saw Chris Marney's War Letters at the Bernie Grant Centre and it did again last year with Cathy Marston's Suit.  But I don't think the impact of those ballets was anything like as great or as longlasting as Ingoma.

Because he had created and staged Ingoma we did not see much of November this year. That was a shame because he has the habit of stealing shows as he did with Little Red Riding Hood (see Ballet Black Triumphant 7 March 2017). I have been following him since 2015 when he was with Ballet Central (see Dazzled 3 May 2016).  He appeared in Pendulum, the first ballet of the evening, with Sayaka Ichikawa. With music by Steve Reich this was a revival of a work that Martin Lawrence had created for the company in 2009. The work starts in silence and then a gentle heartbeat cuts in.  It gathers pace until it becomes compelling.  This is a thrilling work amplified by those dancers' vigour.

The middle work was Click! by Scottish Ballet's Sophie Lapllane whom I have long admired. It shows her sense of fun. Jose Alves, Isabela Coracy, Marie Astrid Mence, Cira Robinson and Ebony Thomas are in primary colours. The piece opens with some dialogue:
"Eddie consulted his therapist because he could not stop clicking his fingers,
The therapist asked Eddie why he thought he was clicking his fingers,
'To keep the tigers away' he replied.
'But Eddie there are no tigers here within 6,000 miles of here.'
'I know' he replied, 'It works pretty good.'"
Ballet Black can make us laugh just as easily as it can make us cry,  This was our chance to laugh before Ingoma.

A sixth star of Click! was David Plater, the company's lighting designer.  I have never mentioned him before and I should have done because he is a genius.  Nowhere did his genius shine more brightly than in Click!  I love that piece and can't wait to see it again.

The company will tour Cambridge, Northampton and Bristol next month before venturing to Cambridge, Derby and Birmingham in May and Edinburgh in June (see Upcoming Performances on its website). It has not announced a date just yet but it usually comes to Leeds in November.   I shall see the company at least a couple more times this year.  This will be a season we shall long remember.

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