Ballet Black Double Bill

Cathy Marston and Arthur Pita
Ballet Black
York Theatre Royal

Since its formation in 2001, Ballet Black—a company for international dancers of black and Asian descent—has built up a reputation for bringing outstanding ballet to a more culturally diverse audience. In this striking double-bill, we get the chance to see what makes them such an urgent and necessary part of the British dance landscape.

Although both pieces explore the complexities and vicissitudes of love, they do so in different modes. The result is an evening of stunning contrasts.

The first dance, The Suit, is based on a South African fable by Can Themba and centres on a love triangle in 1950s Johannesburg. On the surface, Mathilda (Sayaka Ichikawa) and Philemon (José Alves) appear to have a happy marriage. However, it soon becomes clear that Mathilda is conducting an affair with another man, Simon (Mthuthuzeli November), while her husband is at work.

When Philemon returns home early to retrieve his forgotten suitcase, he finds the two lovers together and his heart is broken. However, he exacts a strange but effective revenge on his adulterous wife by forcing her to carry around the suit her lover left behind. Unable to overcome her sense of shame and guilt, Mathilda ultimately commits suicide.

Choreographed by Cathy Marston, The Suit is a powerful piece of narrative dance that captures the violent emotions of Themba’s domestic tragedy. As with her previous work, particularly her adaptation of Jane Eyre for Northern Ballet, Marston’s direction combines crystal-clear storytelling with intricate and precise movement. The dancers’ interlinking bodies convey both the tenderness of married love and the overwhelming force of sexual passion.

Sayaka Ichikawa is superb as the tragic wife, capturing her slow descent to self-destruction. She is matched by Jose Alvés, who powerfully embodies the corrosive effect of jealousy. The third point of the love triangle, Mthuthuzeli November, is a sensual presence onstage.

The rest of the company (there are seven dancers in total) enhance the drama by performing as a chorus. In addition to providing a wider sense of the social context, they also interpret the inner feelings of the main characters and transform themselves into various household objects, including an alarm clock, a bathroom sink and a mirror.

Despite its histrionic ending, I was deeply moved by The Suit. The dramatic tension of the piece is heightened by David Plater’s ominous lighting and a well-chosen soundtrack.

Even better than The Suit is A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream. This Olivier-nominated piece from Arthur Pita was first performed in 2014, and it’s one of the most purely pleasurable versions of Shakespeare’s play I’ve ever seen.

Pita lulls the audience into a false sense of security by beginning the ballet with a traditional sequence in which three women in tutus and three men in tights dance decorously to the stately rhythms of Handel’s “Sarabande Keyboard Suite in D Minor”.

Enter Puck (Isabel Coracy)—here imagined as a green-bearded boy scout—who transports the three couples to a magical forest and then uses his magical glitter to wreak romantic chaos.

In keeping with today’s more enlightened views on sexuality, Helena (Sayaka Ichikawa) rejects the thrusting advances of Lysander (Ebony Thomas) and Demetrius (Mthuthuzeli November) in favour of Hermia (Marie Astrid Mence); Oberon (Jose Alvés) and Lysander fall for each other and Titania (Cira Robinson) dances sensually with Bottom (Mthuthuzeli November).

Pita’s choreography is a thing of joy, the elegant control of the opening transforming into more diverse movement, filled with longing and passion. The pas de deux between Alvés and November, underscored by Jeff Buckley’s “Lilac Wine”, is particularly gorgeous.

The ballet’s diverse soundtrack, which includes Eartha Kitt’s cover of “Let’s Do It” and Yma Sumac’s “Malambo No.1”, is wonderfully eclectic and adds to the sense of controlled madness. The inexplicable appearance of a shuffling Salvador Dalí has baffled some reviewers, but I thought it was a hoot.

This is one of my favourite shows of 2018.

James Ballands