Review: Ballet Black in A New Beginning / Pendulum / Da Gamba / Shift / Orpheus at Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Performance: 9 - 12 February 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 10 February 2011

Ballet Black, Ten Year Anniversary Programme. 9-12 Feb Linbury Studio Theatre. Dancers: Sarah Kundi, Jade Hale-Christofi. Photo: Bill Cooper

Reviewed: 9 February 2011

Ballet Black celebrates its tenth anniversary by taking the first plunge into narrative with this new interpretation of the Orpheus myth by choreographer, Will Tuckett. A world premiere but also a cleverly constructed throwback to a bygone age, evoking – both in theme & style – the short, sharp spatially-effective ballets of the 1930s, created by the Rambert and Vic-Wells companies. They were pioneering ballet in Britain (Vic-Wells was the predecessor of both the Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet) and Ballet Black reflects all the elements of that enterprising spirit, a lifetime later. A small ensemble, struggling for cash and resources; yet, a trailblazing artistic beacon – in BB’s case for Black & Asian dancers in a profession where non- white faces are still too few and far between; but above all else being the product of the single-minded ambition of one very determined woman: dogged, obsessive characteristics that Ballet Black’s founder & artistic director, Cassa Pancho, has in common with those great Dames of British Ballet, Ninette de Valois and Marie Rambert.

Tuckett’s great achievement in Orpheus is to conjure scale, style and narrative with no set and few performers. He utilises eight dancers very effectively on the small Linbury stage by establishing an absorbing geometry of patterns and flow. Tuckett shows that choreography is much more than steps, drawing out the personality of his performers and creating a sense of drama through dance theatre. Ballet Black’s longest-serving dancer, Damien Johnson, displayed charm and nobility in the title role and the elegant Sarah Kundi was alluring as the tragic Eurydice. But it was the three Furies (Chantelle Gotobed, Cira Robinson & Jazmon Voss) who stole the show, with the most dramatic choreography dominating the penultimate scene where they taunt and eventually devour Orpheus. Voss’ disdainful look when banished from the scene by Hades (Jade Hale-Christofi) was especially memorable. They even survived the tricky moment when Gotobed’s headscarf fell over her eyes, leading to a momentary collision. Given the fact that Orpheus loses his wife forever when he removes his blindfold prematurely, it was a deliciously ironic twist! I usually resist absolutist statements but I feel sure that this is the most attractive and complete work I’ve yet seen from Will Tuckett – clearly inspired by a chance hearing of Stravinsky’s score; and all credit to the Ballet Black ensemble for making it so.

We could have been forgiven for imagining the four works before the interval to be no more that an Orpheus hors d’oeuvre but they represented a fascinating tour through the eclectic range of neo-classical, abstract repertory of this ebullient (and resilient) little company. Inevitably, it was a mixed bag of one complete duet and three extracts of longer work. A forgivable sleight of hand offers a second programme, later this week, that actually only includes one change (Robert Hylton’s Human Revolution replacing Shift).

Far and away the best of this bunch was Martin Lawrance’s Pendululum, a stunning, modern pas de deux, performed with verve, strength and speed by the attractive and skillful pairing of Robinson and Voss. Lawrance has created a duet which requires prodigious turning skills and sudden fluctuations of pace and mood and this pair of smart, sassy technicians danced a difficult work with vivacious accuracy. With Denzil Bailey’s A New Beginning, the programme had started with a work made in the first year of Ballet Black’s existence (when part-time dancers trained only at weekends and performed infrequently): it must have an emotional resonance with the company and it’s certainly colourful (the dancers and backdrop represent a kind of tangerine dream) but the performance was a little rough around the edges. The most recent of the opening quartet was an extract from last year’s Da Gamba*in the duet for Gotobed and Hale-Christofi to the onstage cello playing of *Zöe Martlew. Although it has the potential for strong emotion, I felt little engagement between the pair and Henri Oguike’s choreography (admittedly taken out of its context) appeared bland in this setting. Martlew remained on stage to play her own composition to an extract from Antonia Franceschi’s Shift (2005), danced superbly by Johnson, Kundi and Robinson (spectacular in a white bikini-shorts costume). The successful incorporation of two new apprentice dancers (Kanika Carr and Samuel Chung) – who graduate to headline in Pendulum at later performances – is another step in the gradual evolution of the company, enabling the commissioning of a larger work such as Orpheus.

This programme – which both looks back at an already distinguished history and provides an exciting taste of the future – is already sold out in advance as Cassa Pancho continues to repay her loyal audiences with dance programmes that delight and enrich. I imagine it should not be too long before she has a Royal audience of her own, since public recognition of her remarkable achievements can’t be too far away.

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