What were you doing at 20 years of age? I was subsisting on a diet of super noodles and Marlboro reds, just starting an eye-opening but physically gruelling course at drama school. I certainly couldn’t claim to have been creating work that challenged and exposed the dance world’s prejudices, along with being of an impressively high calibre consistently. But guess who could? Ballet Black.
Started in 2001 by Cassa Pancho Ballet Black filled a gap that was sadly missing in the UK dance scene and still is (to a lesser degree). Championing non-white dancers/creatives and their struggles and stories and in the process giving birth to some truly spellbinding shows. Tonight, we celebrate Ballet Black’s two-decade-spanning past and look forward to their exciting future.
Say It Loud has it’s world premiere. Pancho coming out of chorographic retirement devises a series of vignettes with the company. All with completely different themes but all informed by voiceovers of tweets and social media comments the company has received over their long life. Some positive, some negative, some absolutely perplexing “Can I eat a slice of your trauma” seem unlikely, but people on the internet are wild so who knows? In skin-tight leotards in many shades of purple, we have an athletic but a bit aimless first sequence. Pancho’s choreography throughout is inconsistent, at times conjuring up an idea attentively, but at others leaving the meaning a little lost in the swinging legs and flexing muscles.
Sections like Welcome to London, with a piercing rap by Flowdan and additional composition by Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante (also the overall composer) creates a clear world for a solo male dancer, hounded by David Plater’s moving spotlights. Forced to leap in between the beams, contorting his body to the city’s unfriendly gaze.
If You’re Brown to the 1964 song by protest Calypso singer Lord Kitchener has carnival sway and feathered fans. A bright, shifting colourful way to discuss the hell of racism. A deft move considering the company’s position in the current political climate, both simultaneously “seeing and experiencing prejudice, whilst being told there is no problem at the same time being asked to fix it” as Pancho explains in the program. This segment is a highlight, using sarcasm and juxtaposing the jovial sounding song and feathers with the deeper meaning and message.
A pas de deux with poofed-up red tutu to Etta James At Last swells the heart, a clear dance of connection and soft intimacy. Revelling in the jubilation of dance, pure and simple.
Finishing with a spirited and joyful gospel chorus of This Little Light of Mine by the Soweto Gospel Choir, it’s a joyful physicalization of community spirit, faith, and belonging. Summarizing 20 years in dance is a mammoth undertaking and what is produced is uneven overall although incredibly ambitious.
Black Sun is a co-commission for The Barbican. There is no doubt as to the themes explored in this piece; belonging, heritage and environmentalism along with the supernatural are felt throughout. The women in Natalie Pryce’s tattered dresses of earthy red and the men in dark jerkins and gold details clash and inform each other. This piece’s change of pace can be a little choppy but when it works it’s something else. Gregory Maqoma’s focus on live singing, drum playing, and the use of a range of languages creates a humanity in the world of Black Sun. The constant percussion, stomping feet, and raised voices pull us into a place of magic and wonder along with the wild limbs, and spinning forms. Again, with the help of Asante the soundtrack mirrors this energy and life.
Solo’s explode from the group singing and choreography, with the tole of modern life breaking down the performers and driving them into obsessive and repetitive physical patterns. At points both uplifting and unsettling the way the bodies of the dancers draw strength from one another is a message needed for our torn little ball of blue.
20 years is not only an achievement but also unusual for any theatrical endeavour. Covid and two recessions have not dimmed their aim, and with a BB junior School in Shepard Bush, they seem set only to expand. Constantly taking risks, this company has been a driving force within the dance landscape. The fact that we have a more varied Typography for this art form is due in a big way to Ballet Black. I hope I will be sat in the audience, breathless and starry-eyed at their 40-year show, as I am sure it will be worth the wait.