Ballet Black – Barbican, London
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott – 17/03/2018
It’s time to forget everything you think you know about ballet, put aside any pre-existing notions about form, classical styling and storytelling because Ballet Black are redefining its contemporary relevance. The highly acclaimed company returns to the Barbican for a brief run of its new double bill, borrowing steps and rhythms from contemporary dance, ballroom, Latin and musical theatre to complement its classical ballet roots.
The evening comprises two 40-minute shows, the world premiere of its new piece The Suit, co-commissioned by the Barbican, alongside a welcome revival of fan favourite A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream. Together they tell very different stories about love, one uncovers a dark and rather desolate emotion, the other a twinkling universe of enchanted passion that allows its characters to break free.
The Suit, choreographed and directed by Cathy Marston, is a Noirish morality tale about adultery, guilt and punishment. Set in a 1950s-inspired world, Philemon returns home unexpectedly one day to catch his wife Matilda in bed with her lover Simon who scarpers leaving his suit behind. As a penalty, Philemon insists she carries the suit everywhere as a sign of her infidelity, but regret, and her husband’s inflexibility have tragic results.
The stylised movements and Jane Heather’s minimal setting echo elements of West Side Story and An American in Paris, as Marston uses a “chorus” of five dancers to reflect the emotional turmoil of the central couple while creating a wider sense of the surrounding world which fills the large Barbican stage. Yet, there is both a sultry feel and a spikiness to the dance as well that bring out the complexity of feeling in the story, the raging passion and jealousy that uses David Plater’s light and shadow like a film noir to create a tone of foreboding.
By contrast, Arthur Pita’s A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedic delight, full of fairy dust and presided over by a Puck imagined as a green-bearded boy scout. It opens with a wonderful formal piece as Shakespeare’s lovers dance to Handel’s Sarabande Keyboard Suite in D Minor, each movement precisely and elegantly placed, but this soon gives way to an inspired collection of music as scenes from this most famous of plays are enacted to tunes as varied as Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love) by Cole Porter, Lilac Wine by Jeff Buckley and Malambo Part 1 by Moises Vivanco.
A classical ballet with short stiff tutus used for great comic effect, Pita’s approach is as eclectic as it is enchanting, capturing the minxy spirit of Shakespeare’s comic play while adding a few new twists including some notable homosexual couplings that produce some unexpected, but beautiful duets that clearly earn the appreciation of the enthusiastic audience. Even Titania’s affair with Bottom, so often a nonsense, becomes a tender love story danced with emotion to Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.
There are two small niggles, in The Suit, it’s never entirely clear why Matilda cheats when she clearly loves her husband, and in A Dream there is a peculiar moment when a giant Salvador Dali head appears to Oberon which isn’t explained. But across both pieces, danced by the same company, there is such incredibly musicality and phrasing that these are soon forgotten.
Leads Cira Robinson (Mathilda and Titania) and Jose Alves (Philemon and Oberon) find every nuance in both their characters, bringing out the tragic pity of The Suit and the exuberant passion of A Dream. Supported by Isbela Coracy, Sayaka Ichikawa, Marie Astrid Mence, Mthuthuzeli November and Ebony Thomas, this talented company gives each dancer a chance to shine, while utterly absorbing the audience in two quite different stories.
Like Gerardo Gardelin, Diego Romay and Dolores Espeja’s Tanguera and almost anything Matthew Bourne produces, Ballet Black is redefining the nature of modern dance by combining different forms, music and methods of story-telling to reach new audiences. Their unique combination of spectacle and heart will ensure that modern ballet continues to thrive.