Ballet Black – Review – York Theatre Royal
By Ela Portnoy, November 2018
Ballet black are a neo-classical ballet company that gives exposure to professional dancers of black and Asian descent, with the hope of diversifying the ballet world. The company is pioneering, and remarkably thorough in its activities. This year it became the first UK company to launch a range of pointe shoes for black, Asian and mixed race dancers.
According to their website, dancers whose skin tone does not match the pink of traditional ballet shoes normally have to ‘pancake’ their pointe shoes with make-up to create the effect of a flawless line from fingertip to toe, something which is a basic requirement for ballet dancers. But whilst the company’s activities and aims are impressive, what impressed me more was the quality of this double bill.
The show is made up of two very different stories – the first is a tragedy and the second a comedy. The first of the two, Cathy Marston’s ‘The Suit’, follows a couple whose relationship is breaking apart. The story was beautifully choreographed and executed, but difficult to watch. I liked the idea of ‘The Suit’ – it was interesting, and followed through to find all possible eventualities. But I was struck by the feeling that the premise could be traced back to a basic wish to use a suit as a prop, and for me this idea was more prominent in the piece than the story itself.
At times it seemed as though the choreography was more concerned with having the dancers dance with the suit than with having the dancers tell the story. Still, the effect of the piece cannot be understated. It is a classic tragedy, and as a tragedy it was absolutely devastating.
Thank goodness, then, for the second half, which was the polar opposite of the first and thoroughly silly. Arthur Pita’s ‘A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was a revelation. For me, as a non-connoisseur of ballet, it really showed the difference between classical and neo-classical ballet, and pushed the style to its limits.
The choreography starts with Shakespeare’s four lovers in a mock-classical ballet, with tongue-in-cheek rigidity being danced to the famous Sarabande from Handel’s ‘Keyboard suite in D minor’. As Puck comes in and wreaks havoc, the movements slowly evolve, and gradually break out of the traditional and become more adventurous.
It was obviously ballet and not contemporary, but there was more freedom in the repertoire of movements, with more isolation, less rigidity, and some cheeky mambo and noughties pop music, all of which made for some really exciting dancing.
Perhaps even more innovative than the choreography itself were the narratives. As the story progressed, and Puck’s meddling continued, the romantic combinations of the dancers took on some less traditional turns. There were a good dose of lesbian and gay storylines, but also some perceived polyamory, and, what I thought was most interesting, Puck’s character, played by a woman, seemed to be non-binary. All of these things were beautifully intertwined with mockery, winks to the audience, and a good dose of humour. A very well-made choreography, that was performed with flair and relish by the company.
The fact that this show came to York, a city that sees very little touring ballet, shows the extent this company’s drive goes in bringing ballet to different audiences. I would love to see Ballet Black’s vision made reality – where bringing exposure specifically to black and Asian dancers becomes unneeded. This show is something else, and these dancers deserve to be seen.
All images © Ballet Black