Review: Ballet Black - Triple Bill - Barbican Theatre

Performance: 18 & 19 March 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 22 March 2016

Ballet Black - 'To Begin, Begin'. Photo: Bettina Strenske

Cristaux / To Begin, Begin / Storyville

Performance reviewed: 19 March

The latest London presentation by Ballet Black channels thoughts of growth. The company’s evolution should have the strapline “onwards and upwards” attached to it, because each annual programme signifies a step up in quality and a step forward in reach. This year’s particular measure of success is a venue shift to the spacious Barbican Theatre, which hosted two new works and a reprisal of a past success. The re-run of Christopher Hampson’s Storyville (originally premiered in 2012) not only provided a strong finish to this programme, but also suggests Ballet Black is making that essential transition to becoming an established repertoire company.

Storyville holds its allure well. Hampson has reworked his narrative and added some new scenes to flesh out the biographical character of Lulu White, the owner of Mahogany Hall, a dance venue and brothel in the red light district of New Orleans, at the turn of the last century, from which the ballet’s title is taken. It tells the story of a young girl drawn into White’s shady world with tragic consequences. Her name was Nola, which is apparently a nickname for New Orleans derived from merging its initials with the first and last letter of its US state (Louisana).

Several equally strong and consistent factors combine to bring class and sustainability to this mini-ballet (it appears in the style of fantasy ballets that were integral to the great Hollywood and Broadway Musicals, such as Oklahoma, Carousel and the Slaughter on Tenth Avenue divertissement within On Your Toes). Storyville enjoys charismatic and expressive performances, notably by Cira Robinson as the elegant and vulnerable Nola; and Sayaka Ichikawa, channelling the stealth and avarice of a Siamese cat (think Lady and the Tramp) into the eccentric and entrepreneurial character of Lulu. Having character’s names and timelines being paraded across the stage on storyboards – vaudeville-style – was an effective substitute for more complex set designs (bouquet to Gary Harris).

Hampson’s choreography is superbly paced, both drawing out and developing the lead characterisations and providing luscious, lyrical pas de deux for Robinson and Nola’s love interest, an unnamed sailor danced by Damien Johnson. Hampson has an unerring ear for exactly the right music to suit his purposes and Storyville is matched with a rich playlist of Kurt Weill’s music, beginning with the addictive Lost in the Stars, which started life in Weill’s unfinished musical comedy, Ulysses Africanus, but was reused as the title song for a Broadway musical that opened in 1949, a few months before the composer died.

The lyrics (by Maxwell Anderson) – telling of how the stars run through God’s fingers “like grains of sand and one little star fell alone” – are a perfect intro to naive Nola’s arrival in New Orleans. The song has been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and, separately, by both Star Trek stalwarts, ‘Captain Kirk’ (William Shatner) and ‘Mr Spock’ (Leonard Nimoy), but it is the shaky, sentimental, almost spoken interpretation by the veteran actor, Walter Huston – made when he was 60 – that Hampson uses for an imposing, arresting impact at the beginning and end of Storyville. Of genius, such decisions are made.

The two new works brought back choreographers already well established in the Ballet Black repertoire: Cristaux is Arthur Pita’s second work for the company, following the hugely successful A Dream within A Midsummer Night’s Dream; but his maturity with the company is yet slight compared with Christopher Marney’s tally of six commissions. For the 2016 programme, both choreographers went for an abstract narrative built upon the foundations of a specific design theme.

For Pita, it was crystals and, more specifically, the image of a ballerina in a gem-studded tutu on a music box; while for Marney’s To Begin, Begin, it was the floating length of blue silk that danced amongst the human performers. Both works enjoyed an unequivocal style but neither convinced as yet being a complete, holistic package in which all collaborative ingredients hung together with equal strength.

In Cristaux, an automaton ballerina, apparently channelling Balanchine’s Le Palais de Cristal (later, renamed Symphony in C), dressed in a Swarovski-adorned costume (designed by Yann Seabra), repeatedly awakens a young man, while one large crystal is suspended above their heads and, eventually, another swings like a pendulum across the stage. The crystals are beautifully enhanced by David Plater’s lighting, which creates shimmering shards of movement to suggest more than a duet.

Cira Robinson was delightful as the sparkling ballerina. However, I struggled to find a similar allure in Steve Reich’s glacial, dripping notes from Drumming Part III ( Part I adorns Jirí Kylián’s iconic Falling Angels) and although it occasionally felt as if these repetitive, plinky sounds were icy snowdrops articulating an ultra-modern Sugar Plum Fairy, the aural challenge was eventually a struggle too far. The company’s apprentice dancer, Mthuthuzeli November, took full advantage of his counterpoint solos as Pita plays with Reich’s complex rhythms by introducing modern variations into the neoclassical theme. At times it felt as if the two dancers were performing classical and street steps simultaneously to this pared-down contemporary music. It seemed, too, that they have yet to fully assimilate the interactive complexities of intricate choreography set upon such demanding music.

If Pita was inspired by Balanchine then it seemed as if Marney might have taken his cue from Jerome Robbins since his work had a similar lyrical, pure dance flow as in, say, Dances at a Gathering. Instead of the five couples that occupied Robbins’ choreography, Marney sets his dances at a gathering on just three pairs. He has created a composite of separate episodes on themes from Dustin O’Halloran’s music, yet maintaining a consistent fluidity. Distinctions between these several vignettes are enabled by the flowing blue silk, which is wrapped around and floated over dancers as a means of creating seamless transitions. It works well.

One thought made immediately redundant was to wonder if such a small company working without any elaborate sets would be able to command the larger stage and space of the Barbican Theatre. It felt a good fit in every way and the company’s growing following has no trouble filling the seats even in this bigger auditorium.

Both Cristaux and To Begin, Begin look likely to reward repeat viewings. Storyville already has.

Ballet Black are touring the UK. Dates & details:

Photos: Bettina Strenske

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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