Ballet Black are a company drawn from black and Asian performers, which seeks diversity on the stage, to encourage diversity all the way through the ballet food-chain - from dance school to audience makeup. They are also a quite superb ballet company, now in their 16th year, and they have brought their new season to the Playhouse.
The Playhouse is an excellent venue for dance - large enough to allow performances that leap the length and breadth of the stage, but intimate enough to feel a real connection with the performance, and the performers.
The first piece - Dopamine, (you make my levels go silly) - choreographed by Ludivoc Ondiviela, is a celebration of the neuro-chemical feedback-loop that keeps us all (hopefully) doing what we love. And hopefully, what we love doing is love. A complex and intricate piece, this was perhaps the most traditional-feeling of the evening, with male and female dancer in pas de deux, the movements flowing from acceptance to rejection to final conjoining and finale. There was great fluidity and precision to the movement, and Sayaka Ichikawa flew across the stage at times like a butterfly, quite mesmerising and en pointe.
The second piece - Captured - choreographed by Martin Lawrance is set to Shostakovich’s 'String Quartet #11', and brings two pairs of dancers to the stage in an riveting exploration of the themes of territory, possession and inclusion. Performing with great strength and flair, the dance is played out in a glorious series of silken movements that wash across the stage with power and panache. The costumes are excellent and add both literal and metaphorical sparkle to the performance.
The third and final piece - Red Riding Hood choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa - is arresting. Running the gamut of reference from Grimms' fairy tales to Mary Poppins and with hints of Ebenezer Scrooge, this piece depicts the traditional story with great honesty and viscerality. Starting with a very effective moonlit set, owls hoot as the chorus flow into wolf motifs around ingeniously simple but effective tree props - helium balloons on weighted strings. As the story unfolds and Red Riding Hood (Cira Robinson strikingly outfitted against the rich slate greys and purples of the wolf-chorus) gets drawn into the world and desires of a consummate wolf-cowboy (Mthuthuzeli November), the audience too is drawn into the inky depths of the tapestry of sound, movement and deep, gut-hitting drama that spills out onto the stage.
Quite apart from the dance, the music, or rather score, is at once discombobulating and reassuring - running from Electro Ragtime to French accordion to semi-obfuscated spoken word and time-breaking electric crackles and back again. Soundscape doesn’t do it justice - this is audio engineering that dances as a partner behind, around and through the entire piece.
It’s rare to see much equality of power in traditional ballet. Roles are pretty strict and tales pretty tall. However, one of the most refreshing aspects of the night’s performance was, for me, the feeling of levelling across the board in all of the pieces. That the first piece stood out as being perhaps a little more traditional in its power-sharing is testament to how even the playing-field was for the rest of the night. It never felt like one dancer, or indeed character, was dominating the performance, even if they were in the literal or dramatic spotlight at the time; it was a very honest and freeing experience.
An example of this is in the excellent costuming of the chorus players (when required, most of the company switches to chorus mode) - without looking carefully, it’s hard to tell whether a dancer is male or female. And quite rightly, what does it matter, when they are all wolves anyway? There is also rare equality of flirting: while the Wolf makes use of his lasso-tail at many times, there is also playfulness across and inter-gender.
A remarkable journey through explorations of power, age, strength, solitude, unity, recovery and finally equality.