Ballet Black: Heroes

Mthuthuzeli November, Sophie Laplane
Ballet Black
Barbican Centre

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Isabela Coracy Credit: ASH
Acaoa De Catro and company Credit: ASH
Helga Paris Morales and Love Kotiya Credit: ASH

Ballet Black's Pioneers at the Barbican last year celebrated Adrienne Rich and Nina Simone in a double-bill that was a dance calendar highlight.

This year offers the same format. Two works. One new, one reworked—based around the themes of seeking out eccentricities in the everyday grind. Getting up, cleaning your teeth, going to work—a repetitive and familiar loop of routine that can be easily reimagined in movement—with the help of a voiceover.

Sophie Laplane’s If at First opens the evening and circles around the concept of heroism. The piece was inspired by her favourite Basquiat painting, Eroica (from Beethoven’s Symphony), part of a series of paintings where the artist explores the concept of heroism. “What does it mean to be heroic?” asks Laplane in the programme notes. Without such clues, I’m not sure this question is front of mind as the movement unfolds. It’s more a breezy, fun series of sequences—pleasing to watch thanks to the muscularity and strength of the amazingly talented cast.

The piece opens with a papier mâché toy crown being passed from dancer to dancer. It’s a playful, lively start, with dancers skittish and full speed, skirting on and off stage like a game of catch in a school playground. The highlight finds a more focused voice in a series of powerful duets. The first, between a man and women, clearly in a power battle, where the woman is flaying about, somewhat subjugated by the bulky force of the male dancer.

Then one gloriously curvaceous duet between two women and, finally, a duet to end the piece where the woman falls to the ground and dies as her partner tries to revive her limp body but to no avail. The piece ends on a winner. A single dancer wears the crown in glory—it feels like a balletic spoof as the Eroica Symphony pumps out and he puffs up his chest proudly inhabiting the central space awaiting our praise and admiration.

The music is unsettling. Perhaps by design? Partly due to contemporary scores such as "Coffee Grounds" (Bert Docks, Fred Lyenn and Stephen Cassieres) layered next to excerpts of Beethoven’s Eroica. One minute we are in downtown Greenwich Village, the next, swept into a pseudo-neoclassical world which feels marginally tongue-in-cheek when a male dancer postulates with a crown looking rather proud of himself.

There is an almost new cast for this piece as five out of the nine dancers joined Ballet Black in the past year, so they bring a speedy joy and freshness to the choreography, which is only exciting to watch as they blaze across the stage.

The second half brings The Waiting Game by Mthuthuzeli November, a stimulating, absurdist piece musing on the pointlessness of existence originally inspired by Samuel Beckett. The choreographer uses this as starting point to explore philosophical questions. “If life is a game, are we the players or the spectators?” It’s hard to fathom answers in the movement and voiceovers, but it’s a hugely enjoyable performance.

Meet Ebony Thomas, the main character who is lost in a mind-numbingly dull routine. Thomas is superb. He’s intriguingly buried in an oversized raincoat and ripples his athletic form in and out of the coat, dispirited and desperate, echoed by a voiceover mirroring the movement of Isabella Coracy, cajoling him to take his rightful place as the leader onstage. The lip-synching here gives Crystal Pite vibes, but doesn’t always enliven the movement.

A longer version than the original, The Waiting Game perhaps spends too much time with dancers wheeling around a lightbox, representing the office doors or the funeral parlour of doom. The problem is that, with so much wheeling about, it takes you away from the main thrust of the piece, plus the sound of the wheels on the stage is somewhat distracting.

Finally, the lights go up. Some people clap as it’s not clear whether or not the show is over. A sign announces, "a long time later," and the entire cast appear in sequinned silver jackets and bright red lipstick ready for a showy number a la Broadway—all jazz hands and step ball changes. Even though the message is confusing in terms of what it all means, perhaps this is the point of absurdity? Either way, watching the whole cast gloriously embracing the musicals finale is such fun and impossibly infectious in the toe-tapping variety; it lifts the spirits and ends on a high note.

Reviewer: Rachel Nouchi

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