A black curtain provides the barrier between stage and audience for three works from Ballet Black, a professional company for dancers of black and Asian descent. Two works are newly commissioned for the evening: the pas de deux ‘Cristaux’ by Arthur Pita and ‘To Begin, Begin’ by Christopher Marney introduce the group of eight dancers in the first half, before the award-winning ‘Storyville’ by Christopher Hampson completes the evening. Looking around the audience, there is a mix of staunch Barbican regulars sitting next to amateur enthusiasts, young families and older couples alike. It appears that the fans of Ballet Black are from a variety of backgrounds, an inspiring way for the company to bring ballet to a new generation of followers. One hopes that founder and artistic director Cassa Pancho is pleased with the breadth of people that her modern and bold company is reaching in today’s society.
Pita’s new work ‘Cristaux’ gives apprentice dancer Mthuthuzeli November a chance to dance with senior artist Cira Robinson (who also takes the lead role in Hampson’s ‘Storyville’ in the second half). Pita has taken Steve Reich’s Drumming Part III to heart in the choreography; Reich is renowned for repetitive phrasing that takes on an almost hypnotic quality and this piece is no exception. The light metallic ringing of the glockenspiel complements Robinson’s pointe work and Yann Seabra’s Swarovski-sponsored costume design – all elements join together in their delicate intricacy. November’s dancing, whilst spirited and passionate, tends to fall slightly out of place here, but the couple’s combination of canon and unison work provides a good balance between their respective styles.
The other dancers get the opportunity to introduce themselves in Marney’s new work ‘To Begin, Begin’: split into three couples, each gets the stage to themselves and are substituted in and out of the routine with a deep blue fabric that, like a magic trick, hides one duo and reveals another. Once again, all elements are well entwined here: the thick, colourful music from Dustin O’Halloran, complete with heavy strings, complements the rich colours in Rebecca Hayes’s costumes. Each couple has a distinct personality that is impossible to miss in their individual routines, but it is Kanika Carr and Joshua Harriette that best capture the sensual essence of the music. Then the magical blue fabric washes these two away, cleaned from the stage to produce a new couple with their own interpretation of the atmosphere – the effect is a piece that is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
The piece of the night is the revival of Hampson’s ‘Storyville’, originally created for the company in 2012 and winning the Critics’ Circle National Dance Award for Classical Choreography. Robinson dances fallen heroine Nola, an ingénue at an infamous New Orleans dance hall run by Lulu White (Sayaka Ichikawa). Under the spell of White, even the love of a sailor (Damien Johnson) cannot set Nola free as her dancing notoriety grows and she remains lured into the dance hall, trapped forever in its enchantment.
As with the other two pieces, all elements are well synchronised here. Gary Harris adds twentieth century Louisiana styling to complement Kurt Weill’s compositions, with signs from the silent movies moving time forward in Nola’s story, as she dances in a vibrant red dress. However, Ichikawa steals the show here. From her first entrance she exudes personality as she casts her evil spell of promise and fame over Nola – every movement is precise, perfectly executed and full of star quality. Even the tender pieces between Johnson and Robinson are over-shadowed by the promise that Ichikawa will soon return to the stage with her right-hand man Mack (Harriette), who also adds to the atmosphere as a sinister, arrogant version of Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ character.
Pancho has created a production that wonderfully showcases the capabilities of black and Asian dancers in a field that has typically been dominated by their white European counterparts. Along with the well-known greats of Carlos Acosta and Misty Copeland, Cassa Pancho can comfortably be cited as an individual that is pushing to modernise and create contemporary works that build on these classical principles. Ballet Black is a company that pushes for the future.
Ballet Black: Triple Bill played at the Barbican Centre until 19 March. For more information and future shows, see the Ballet Black website. Photo: Bill Cooper