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Ballet Black Triple Bill: House of Dreams / Captured / Red Riding Hood

Choreography Michael Corder, Martin Lawrance, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Ballet Black
Barbican Theatre
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Last year I thought the Barbican venue too big (seating 1156) for this company of eight, and I’m still in two minds about it, but this year they command the space with increased assurance, especially in the last number. It helps that they are playing to almost full capacity.

Hats off to them. And to artistic director Cassa Pancho for her commissions, a blend of classical and contemporary, abstract and narrative. Tonight we have two short abstract (about forty minutes in total) before the interval and one longer (half hour) narrative after, though as Balanchine once said, “Put a man and a girl on stage and there is already a story; a man and two girls, there's already a plot”.

Michael Corder’s House of Dreams is dreamy, and lyrical. Two couples, costumed (by Yukiko Tsukamoto) in shades of spring and autumn, dance to a recording of Pascal Rogé playing four of Debussy’s piano pieces.

Two romantic couples, one youthful (Marie Astrid Mence and Jacob Wye), full of joy and hope, the other (Sayaka Ichikawa and Damien Johnson) more mature, elegant and enigmatic, with issues to resolve perhaps. Issues resolved, the four share Debussy’s jaunty Passepied.

Throughout I am thinking Mark Morris and Richard Alston, and what comes next but Martin Lawrance’s - Alston’s second-in-command, his company’s associate choreographer – Captured (2012). More of the same, or similar, but, boy, is there more to chew on with Shostakovich’s music.

There’s always some underlying narrative in his music, here String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122 (1966). And this time I can’t help but intuit the conflicted relationships in Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago in the interaction between the two couples.

Cira Robinson and Mthuthulezi November are intense, intimidated, afraid. Is Isabela Coracy trying to come between them? Who is José Alves – a Soviet commissar? David Plater’s lighting is smoky, a grim uneasy environment. Rebecca Hayes’s costume design of single-sleeved metallic bodice for the women suggests gladiatorial combat.

Toes tap, hints of folk dance, a village square, a midnight departure… Sorrowful violin, sonorous cello – are the men allies or rivals, I can’t tell from their duet. The arc of the story scales the emotions. Strings are plucked – are hearts? In tight embrace, are Robinson and November safe as the lights go down?

Is Cira Robinson’s Red Riding Hood safe in the deep dark woods from Mthuthulezi November’s raunchy Wolf with a long, long shlong of a tail? Wide-brimmed hat, leather jerkin with a strip of biker fur, he ropes her in, hypnotises her with his swinging dick, takes the flower her mother gave her.

The innuendos come thick and fast. How come she has only one flower when the saucy burlesque girls have two each? And grandmother is played en travesti by José Alves on pointe. The facts of life confuse, but isn’t a bad boy with that hip-hop rolling gait irresistible; does she love it!

What did mother say – Red’s belly swells, but this inconvenience soon disappears... A bit surreal, a bit tongue-in-cheek, a bit cabaret - Touchez pas au grisbi! Don't touch the loot – just one extract from a medley of mostly decades-old French film scores with some jaunty accordion.

Yet, Annabelle Lopez Ochao sets this corny mini ZooNation-style update in the woods of the hood. There’s lots of doubling and gender-bending to fake the numbers. And Yann Seabra’s purple balloons as moveable trees are ingenious. Into this bordello wood stumbles Red Riding Hood with her red balloon, and tulip tightly clasped in handbag.

A release for the audience after the classical entrées, Ochoa’s Red Riding Hood (co-commissioned by the Barbican) aims to please, as well as carrying a bit of personal nostalgia in the choice of music from her own childhood in Brussels. Memories of late night howling at the moon, early morning birdcalls, sexy hips, knee-trembling foreplay? Red does just fine.

Red Riding Hood reminds me a little of the company’s spirited performance in Mark Bruce’s Second Coming – has Pancho hit on her preferred template for an evening of dance, two warm-up classical abstracts and one narrative to send the audience out on a lighthearted note? The danger is, of course, that a fickle few will leave before the fun number, as indeed is the case tonight.

See for yourselves: Ballet Black is touring round the country for the next few months.

Vera Liber