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The Oxford Playhouse

Ballet Black
4.0Overall Score

Ballet Black’s autumn show has something for everyone.  Ballet Black is a professional ballet company for dancers of Asian and black descent.  Set up by Cassa Pancho MBE in 2001, Ballet Black has become an important fixture on the UK dance scene.  This touring show is made up of three separate and very different pieces, and everybody will have their favourite.

The first piece was Pendulum, an intellectual piece, choreographed by Martin Lawrance, and danced by Sayaka Ichikawa and the spectacularly talented Mthuthuzeli November.  The abiding impression this piece left on my mind was as a series of beautiful tableaux. The dancers moved from one beautiful pose to another, starting in complete silence and ending with an intense and relentless electronic soundscape. It was striking and entertaining to watch but the lack of a strong narrative meant that it provided me with entertainment rather than food for thought.  That’s fine – dance does not have to save the world every time!

The second piece, Sophie Laplane’s Click!, was full of fun.   The dancers wore bright, loose suits in primary colours, coloured spot lights lit the stage and the music, a specially arranged version of Just The Snap of Your Fingers, by the Mudlarks, brought an ironic, cool vibe to the piece.  The humour in this piece shone through and at times, the audience was laughing out loud; a rare event in the world of classical ballet.  Watching this piece felt like going to a great fun party.  If you are exhausted and down after a gruelling working week, this piece will cheer you up and make you want to jump up on stage and join the dancers; wiggling your hips and clicking your fingers.  If that was the choreographer’s intention, then this piece succeeded.  Although I enjoyed watching this piece, I tend to want more from my dance – I want a racing heart, sweaty palms, breathlessness, elation, horror – I want to have my mind drawn back to the piece even after years. Click didn’t give me that, but in all fairness, didn’t purport to.

The final piece, Ignoma, choreographed by Mthuthuzeli November, came much closer to giving me what I seek from dance and, as a result, was by far my favourite. Ignoma tells the story of South Africa’s black miners’ strike in 1946. Uniquely, the piece not only shows the men’s suffering and struggle but shares with us the suffering of the women involved; wives, mothers, daughters, friends.

November’s choreography is assured, risky and mature.  He successfully combines the discipline of classical ballet with the edgy risks of contemporary and street dance.  Often this type of fusion between dance styles can feel gimmicky, but November avoids that by making sure that every movement is about respectfully communicating the story. So, we have beautiful, traditional classical duets and exciting and risky contemporary dance merged skilfully into one piece. The minimalist costumes and props were superb in suggesting the heat and intensive labour of the miners and the emotional toll on their wives, mothers and girlfriends.  Similarly, the music, a dexterous blend of intensity and repose enhanced the choreography. The whole piece was quite cinematic and at times, I felt like I was watching an Oscar winning film, rather than a dance piece.

What really stuck with me about this piece though was how confident and risky the choreography was – moments where the only movement on the stage came from one dancer’s breathing, or the dance solo that started with a dancer running on the spot, for quite some time.  These things shouldn’t have worked, but they did – spectacularly so and only the most mature and assured choreographers would have the confidence and skill to successfully pull them off.

The dancers of Ballet Black are all accomplished professionals and the standard of dancing is high.  However, if I am being very picky, I would have liked to see the classical ballet parts of the show being executed with Russian-style precision – super high leg lifts, super high jumps and no wobbles to speak of.  While all the dancers are clearly talented and dedicated, one dancer in particularly, stood out as a star of the future.  Cira Robinson used ultra-high precision execution to communicate in a way that was reminiscent of the Russian stars of ballet.  I think she is one to watch.

Ballet Black’s show is a great, eclectic mix of different styles and moods and everyone will find something in it to enjoy.

  • Ballet
  • Artistic Director: Cassa Pancho
  • Choreography by Sophie Laplane, Martin Lawrance and Mthuthuzeli November.
  • Dancers include Jose Alves, Sayaka Ichikawa and Cira Robinson.
  • The Oxford Playhouse
  • On UK tour until 26 November 2019.

About The Author

Editorial team & reviewer (UK)

Hailing from Japan, Catherine Flutsch studied philosophy and law in Australia at Sydney University. She moved to the UK to practice law and to soak up the art and culture. After a career in corporate law spanning Sydney, Tokyo and London, Catherine left legal practice and moved to Oxford. During her time as a full-time parent, she developed a portrait painting practice. She subsequently set up a management consultancy firm. Being her own boss means that she has time to indulge her passion for theatre, art and dance. Catherine has a particular love for Shakespeare and a special interest in Shakespeare's historical plays.

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