Review: Mark Baldwin & Ladysmith Black Mambazo - Inala - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 17 - 20 September 2014
Reviewed by Samantha Whitaker - Thursday 18 September 2014

'INALA'. Camille Breacher & James Butcher. Photo: Giulietta Verdon-Roe

Performance reviewed: 17 September

After a short but triumphant run at the Edinburgh International Festival, INALA has come to London. Conceived by composer Ella Spira and Royal Ballet dancer Pietra Mello-Pittman – (jointly Sisters Grimm) – and choreographed by Rambert’s artistic director Mark Baldwin, it’s billed as a ‘Zulu Ballet’. What they have achieved is actually much more than that. INALA is a perfectly balanced and deliciously feelgood cocktail of South African infused contemporary dance and soul-warming songs, performed by the world-famous male choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo (LBM).

On stage, the nine singers and 11 dancers, some from Rambert and the Royal Ballet, are all performers together. The dancers don’t sing, but the choir do dance – which seems a bit odd at first, but quite quickly feels natural, especially when the older members laugh at their inability to keep up with the more demanding moves and you realise that, actually, none of them are taking themselves too seriously. Their music, on the other hand, is something the choir take very seriously and their performance is flawless, regardless of what their feet might be doing. The songs in INALA are warm, comforting and curiously moving. Unusually for them, their smooth harmonies are accompanied by a small band – percussion, piano, cello and violin – seated at the back of the stage, and also by a soundscape including animal sounds and bird calls. Soft lighting moves us from day to night, and the set remains the same throughout, with just a few crates moved around occasionally for the choir to sit on.

Unless you speak Zulu, it’s impossible to know what the choir are singing – but it doesn’t really matter. There’s no narrative to follow; instead, we’re presented with a series of abstract vignettes to interpret however we choose. Some are quite clear, others not so much. At one point, all 20 performers repeat a series of movements that depicts the catching of a fish, raising this ordinary activity from daily life into a graceful and rhythmic gesture, a characteristic of African dance. But for the most part, we’re given fleeting glimpses into the lives of ordinary people, going about their work, living their lives and perhaps falling in love.

Baldwin cleverly showcase the incredible talent and athleticism of his dancers without it feeling too show-offy. The ballet dancers pirouette and jeté impressively on occasion, but the majority of the movement vocabulary is pure, classic contemporary infused with the gorgeous rhythms of South African dance. Scuffing, stamping and hopping steps, sexy hip and shoulder movements, Zulu war dance-style high kicks, and angular, reaching arm gestures blend seamlessly with smooth extensions, contractions, leaps and deep lunges.

Sometimes there are two dancers, then five, then one, then all 11 in unison – arriving on stage for just a few moments of smooth, energetic movement before disappearing into the wings. The pace is fast and fresh, then slows for a longer solo or duet. A stand-out moment is Camille Breacher and Mark Biocca’s technically impressive yet beautifully tender duet to the song entitled Wamuhle Ntombi (You are a beautiful lady). Throughout, the dancers shift between being human and being birds, with tribalistic leather and mottled feather headdresses by designer (and former taxidermist) Georg Meyer-Wiel – and Baldwin has a tight choreographic style for each, repeating motifs and phrases throughout the performance to bring the vignettes together into a cohesive whole.

Around halfway through, a cacophony of car horns and traffic noise signals a change in tone. The upbeat, playful mood is replaced by fear and frenzy, limbs trembling, lightning crashing and a gun shot. Luckily, this sinister interlude doesn’t last long and towards the end LBM take centre stage to sing two spine-tinglingly beautiful, spiritual uplifting songs that sound like a hymn
or prayer, sending you home on a natural high.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until Saturday 20 September
- and then tours the UK until 4 October: dates & venues.

Samantha Whitaker is an editor and freelance writer. Find her on Twitter @swhit1985

Photos: Giulietta Verdon-Roe

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