“It felt like change”: Twenty years of Ballet Black

L-R) Rosanna Lindsey, Isabela Coracy, Sayaka Ichikawa, Mthuthuzeli November, José Alves,
Cira Robinson and Ebony Thomas. Photography by Bill Cooper.

The unmissable Ballet Black present a new double bill to celebrate their twentieth year of producing groundbreaking ballet in Britain: Say It Loud & Black Sun.

Founded in 2001 by Cassa Pancho MBE, Ballet Black is an award-winning, neo-classical ballet company,
dedicated to diversifying the ballet industry. The Company is made up of international dancers of
Black and Asian descent and their entirely original repertoire covers a broad spectrum of ballet, from
classical work to highly contemporary pieces.

All the Ballet Black signatures are on these pieces, from stunning lighting design by David Plater drawing focus to the power of the dancers’ movement, to the subtle, emotive costumes by Jessica Cabassa and Natalie Pryce, to the concise running time of 1hr30, including interval, to the close-formation cross-stage shuffle.

Say It Loud is choreographed and directed by Founder and Artistic Director Pancho and the Company artists. Opening with an audio montage of white criticisms and microaggressions (later developed into the macroaggressions seen in the ‘Welcome To London’ sequence) directed at the company, it charts the struggles and inspiration behind its formation, from the uncomfortable reasons for its existence to the frenetic, creative energy seen in their work and well-earned reputation as an essential feature of the British ballet industry. The line that leads us into the dance focuses on the creative freedom they had, “because no one was paying attention”.

The ensuing choreography has the ensemble creating space, bearing witness and facilitating solos and pas de deux that invite more personal connection with the unique energies of each dancer. The piece shifts with grace and precision through the playful, the uncanny and the deeply moving. Bodies are pinched and knocked by invisible forces; they whirl invisible partners, shedding luminescence on what lies beneath the surface. “Can we get a slice of your trauma?” demands a disembodied voice, before a femme trio emulate a gentle, migrating flock of birds, before Etta James accompanies the beautiful release of a pas de deux with ‘At Last’. The first half rounds out with a celebratory clapping, clicking, whooping circle of dancers facing each other to ‘This Little Light of Mine’ recorded by the Soweto Gospel Choir; a final image of unapologetic joy.

The second ballet in this double bill is Black Sun by acclaimed South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma of Vuyani Dance Theatre and features an original score by Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante (Boy Blue). The music opens up a depth of pain, visualised in the performers’ twitching, flinching physicality. We see the ensemble break apart, bodies cracking from the whole and turning inward on themselves. They draw toward and away from the dual sources of the sun and the moon, raising a conversation between descendants and their ancestors. “These forces only meet to blacken, allowing us to draw from their powers as we prepare for life after life.” A soul appears to be sold.

The embodiment of conflict, of struggle, within each dancer, is brought to an exquisite crescendo as the ensemble take up a chant, slamming makeshift drums with abandon and eyes all on the remaining individual. Sublime waves of quiet and loud carry the piece through the ever-changing protagonist’s desperate, tortured, exhausted journey of virulent need. The dancers feed off each other’s energy with fluidity, creating a concentrated authenticity to one of the best live performing arts companies in the field.

Ballet Black performed Double Bill 2022: Say It Loud & Black Sun at York Theatre Royal on 11 October 2022. The tour continues, with further information and tickets available here.

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