Together Alone, Running Silent, Captured, Storyville
Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London; March 3, 2012
Founded by Artistic Director Cassa Pancho in 2001, the aim of Ballet Black was to promote black and Asian dancers, and to give them opportunities that would lead to them being offered places with bigger companies. That part of the plan hasn’t quite worked out. There may be a few notable exceptions, but such dancers remain a rarity on British ballet stages. What has happened, though, is that the company has turned into a big success story in its own right. Now supported by the Royal Opera House, it has become noted for its innovative works and talented dancers, and this year has over 25 performance dates including a first tour to Italy.
Highlight of Ballet Black’s latest programme of four new ballets is Martin Lawrence’s powerful “Captured”. Lawrence learned his craft under Richard Alston, so his great musicality is no surprise, but you would never believe this is his first work on pointe. Set to Shostakovich’s 11th string quartet, “Captured” is a quartet featuring Sayaka Ichikawa, Damien Johnson, Joseph Poulton and Cira Robinson.
Lawrence follows the music closely, giving each of the seven movements a particular emotion. His dance is packed with moments of intimacy, but leaves us to guess the precise nature of the relationships on show. The dancers switch partners constantly as compete for dominance. More often than not this all comes with a hint of menace, and certainly an undercurrent of tension that propels the work forever forwards. Each dancer brings their own particular flavour to the work, with Robinson’s attack and staccato movement being particularly impressive.
“Captured” was run very close by Scottish Ballet Artistic Director-elect Christopher Hampson’s “Storyville”. Set in 1915, and to arrangements of Kurt Weill’s music for “The Threepenny Opera” and two songs from the same period, “Lost in the Stars” and “Je ne t’aime pas”, the ballet tells the tale of Nola, an unsuspecting innocent girl, who falls foul of Lulu White, owner of the infamous dance hall-cum-brothel Mahogany Hall, and her pimp, Mack. Hampson sees his ballet as an allegory of the New Orleans of the time, a booming city yet corrupt, with many of its people poor and exploited, just like Nola, whose name happens to be an acronym of New Orleans, Louisiana.
Wide-eyed and innocent, Nola (Cira Robinson) is the ‘little dark star’ that got lost of the opening song. Naïve and unsuspecting, clutching a doll to emphasise her tender years, her happiness and joy soon changes as she is exploited by Lulu White (Sarah Kundi) and her pimp, Mack (Jazmon Voss). Silent movie placards paraded by the rest of the company are used to identify characters and time spans. Nola finds herself a lover in Damien Johnson, with whom she dances a tender duet. Later in the ballet he tries to rescue her, but it is too late. Lulu and Mack’s ownership has been sealed by a glittering bracelet and necklace that have become her chains. At the climax of the story she sees them as voodoo practitioners, sticking pins into her rag doll, undoubtedly a metaphor for herself. Lover boy tries and fails to rescue her as Lulu and Mack emphasise their ownership with a glittering bracelet and necklace that have become her symbolic chains.
Hampson tells the story clearly and with a light touch. The leads were all excellent. Kundi and Voss were nicely menacing. When the latter gives Nola her bracelet he proceeds to promenade her with his hand clamped tightly to her throat; just to make the point who is boss here. Cira Robinson made us care what happened. As her lover, Johnson was gentle, full of concern and showed some excellent partnering, high jumps and feather-light landings.
Ballet Black do not have the cash for scenery or expensive costumes, so all credit to Gary Harris for coming up with simple costumes and designs that put the ballet firmly in its time and place, and David Plater for his most atmospheric lighting.
Also on show were “Together Alone” by Jonathan Watkins of The Royal Ballet, and “Silent Running” by Rambert Dance Company’s Jonathan Goddard. Like Lawrence, both choreographers opted to depict mood and emotion rather than narrative, but were somewhat less successful.
“Together Alone” featured Kundi and Voss who seemed to stalk each other around the stage. Like Robinson, Kundi showed some nice attack, and Voss was very muscular and moody. It was all difficult to get to grips with, though, Alex Baranowski’s less than composition not exactly helping.
Goddards’ “Running Silent” was inspired by imagining what happens in the darkness of deep water when the pressure gets so great that everything starts to collapse. Second year apprentice dancer Kanika Carr gave us lots of relentless rolling on the floor, her body being pulled and contorted in different directions, interspersed with moments of more balletic turns and runs. She did what she could with it, but it struggled to hold the attention and you couldn’t help feeling the choreography let her down rather.
Overall, though, this was a hugely impressive evening. That such a programme can be presented, and of such quality, with such sparse resources speaks volumes for everyone involved. This is a company not to be missed.Ballet Black continues on tour to Bury St Edmunds, Exeter, Taunton, Leicester, Cambridge and Nottingham. See http://www.balletblack.co.uk/performances for details
.This review will appear with images in a future update of the magazine.