By Simone Mumford
“That was absolutely joyous!” exclaimed the lovely lady sat to my right. I couldn’t help but wholeheartedly agree with her sentiments towards The Ballet Black Company’s triple bill performance at York Theatre Royal. It is hard to describe the feverish excitement and range of emotion that Cassa Pancho’s company elicited from its audience, but the uproarious standing ovation that accompanied the bows should be explanation enough.
The house lights dimmed to focus on a hazy empty space: two dancers clad in black entered from diagonal opposites to stare at one another centre stage. The tension was begging to be cut with a knife! For the entirety of its ten-minute run, the intensity of the opening number ‘PENDULUM’ made me feel guilty for breathing or blinking. As the title suggests, the duet moved between two extremes of tender intimacy and conflict, which never permitted the audience to once become complacent or relaxed until its ending blackout.
Immediately juxtaposing this tense, spellbinding atmosphere, Sophie LaPlane’s number ‘CLICK!’ shifted the tone to a much more comic and light-hearted one. If the opening dance had me open-mouthed with suspense, this dance had me uncontrollably grinning with joy for its dynamic playfulness. The choreography showcased wonderfully the versatility of the dancers, able to oscillate between fluid, suave and razor-sharp movement with slick precision. The vibrant colours of the suits worn by the dancers punctuated the effortlessness of their movements and, in many ways, encapsulated the thrill of this innovative company.
Following an anticipation-filled interval was the final performance of the evening, ‘INGOMA’. This was the only narrative-driven, storytelling dance of the three, centred on the 1946 South African miner’s strike, which saw over 1200 workers injured and at least nine murdered. Choreographer Mthuthuzeli November presented a deeply sorrowful depiction of this horrifying massacre, marrying African dance and ballet with song. What emerged from this was a deeply human expression of heartache and rage. Whilst the choreography of the other dances had shown stylised technical skill, this dance felt much more grounded. This only augmented the heartfelt core of the piece, particularly one moment which stuck out to me when the dancers all collectively dropped from exhaustion, the music ceased and all that remained was the sound of heavy breathing, heavy, it felt, from the visceral suffering experienced under Apartheid that was being portrayed.
Though not exclusively so, ballet as an industry has no always been welcoming of diversity. One needs to look no further than the Misty Copeland – whose incredible talent was met with many more comments about her nationality and figure than her formidable dancing – to see this. Witnessing such a rich diversity of dancers of both black and Asian descent in The Ballet Black Company, then, provided hope and a celebration of the overturning of traditional and antiquated views of ballet. Though, whilst we should extol this progression in the industry, it is really the choreography and performances themselves that should be emphasised and praised, as they were truly spectacular and in fact revivified my love for dance. The Ballet Black Company has produced such exciting material and I eagerly await their future projects, as it was, to reiterate the apt words of the lady on my right, “absolutely joyous!”