Black Sabbath—The Ballet

Director Carlos Acosta, choreography Pontus Lidburg, Raúl Reinoso and Cassi Abranches, music Black Sabbath orchestrated by Christopher Austin, music consultant Tony Iommi
Birmingham Royal Ballet
Sadler’s Wells

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BRB Black Sabbath—The Ballet Credit: Johan Persson
Javier Rojas and Yaoqian Shang Credit: Johan Persson
Javier Rojas and Yaoqian Shang Credit: Johan Persson
Tzu-Chao Chou Credit: Johan Persson
BRB Black Sabbath—The Ballet Credit: Johan Persson
Marc Hayward and BRB Artists Credit: Johan Persson
Celine Gittens and Tyrone Singleton Credit: Johan Persson
Lachlan Monaghan Credit: Johan Persson
BRB Black Sabbath—The Ballet Credit: Johan Persson
BRB Black Sabbath—The Ballet Credit: Johan Persson
Celine Gittens and Tyrone Singleton Credit: Johan Persson
BRB Black Sabbath—The Ballet Credit: Johan Persson
Regan Hutsell Credit: Johan Persson
Miki Mitzutani and Riku Ito Credit: Johan Persson
BRB Black Sabbath—The Ballet Credit: Johan Persson

The credits are many, but the concept is Carlos Acosta’s: to combine the talents of Birmingham Royal Ballet (under his leadership) with the music of Birmingham’s famous sons, Black Sabbath. He’s already paid homage to Birmingham’s industry with his ‘love letter’ to his adopted city, City of a Thousand Trades, choreographed by fellow Cuban Miguel Altunaga in 2021.

Acosta, a man of working class origins (we have his autobiography and the 2019 film Yuli to fill in his background), relates to these working class Brummies, who overcame much, as Sharon Osbourne relates in voiceover. As does a laconic Tony Iommi, lead guitarist, whose loss of two fingertips in a sheet metal accident at the age of seventeen led to ingenuity and the Black Sabbath heavy rock sound with its wailing guitar. I love it.

Tonight, (only on press night we're told) we have the pleasure of his company on stage, riffing with guitarist Marc Hayward. And the heavy metal fans in the audience are ecstatic. What a mixed audience—good to see regular dance aficionados, a large clutch of sponsors AND long haired, black-clad newbies to Sadler’s Wells... How cool is that…

The roar is from the stalls, and I wish I were down there, in the ‘mosh pit’, so to speak, instead of sitting demurely halfway back in the first circle. I see Federico Bonelli, former Royal Ballet principal and now artistic director of Northern Ballet, two rows in front of me, as well as other luminaries, but I still think downstairs must be the place to be for the sound...

Black Sabbath’s music is lushly orchestrated, and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Christopher Austin with arrangements and additions from Joshua Hickin, new music from Marko Nyberg (act I) and Sun Keting (act II). The ballet is divided into three half-hour movements in the life of the band: Heavy Metal Ballet / The Band / Everybody is a Fan.

Different choreographers for each section—under the overall supervision of Pontus Lidberg, who choreographs part three. Acosta likes to give opportunities to young people, and so we have Raúl Reinoso of Acosta Danza (part one), and Cassi Abranches formerly of Grupo Corpo (part two)—with varying results. Inevitably, there's some air guitar.

But it’s the whole that matters and little is left to chance—production values are stratospheric. Maybe not in the region of Ozzy Osbourne’s cocaine bills (higher than the eighty thousand pound recording studio bills), but on top of the usual credits, there’s a metal curator (Lisa Meyer) and a dramaturg (Richard Thomas) and designer Alexandre Arrechea’s light boxes, record stacks and upturned chrome car with signature demon under Kieron Johnson’s neon strips and spots punctuating a dark, dry ice filled stage landscape.

We are warned: “this performance includes occasional use of dry ice, smoke, flashing lights, loud music and archival voiceovers that feature bleeped-out swearing and references to drug use.” A few of Ozzy’s ‘fucks’ might have made us laugh, god forbid. Actually, the music is mellow, folksy at times, lyrical, a cinematic score, and not at all the stadium full-on craziness. The choreography decorates it.

Eight Black Sabbath tracks are used: “Paranoid”; “Ironman”; “War Pigs”; “Black Sabbath”; “Solitude”; “Orchid”; “Laguna Sunrise” and “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”, several repeated in each section. A rite and homage, Black Sabbath—The Ballet has a loose, faux-improvised look about it. I briefly wonder what Sharon Eyal would have come up with to that music.

Heavy Metal Ballet features, if one includes the guitarist (how does he manage to play as he is manhandled on to their shoulders?), twenty-four performers, but the ones that stand out are Tzu-Chao Chou on pointes and Yaoqian Shang and Javier Rojas as the inseparable lovers, attached by their lips throughout their duet. The cohort in black leotards (bats in hell?) moves in neoclassical ‘William Forsythe’ formation. Class work—pointed toes, elegant arms, fouettés, pirouettes and rock—beautiful.

The Band is more dressed down contemporary, and I think is this West Side Story, for there is narrative subtext, lots of strolling, as well as the voiceovers. Regan Hutsell’s wild solo is danced against six horizontal red neon strips—is this meant to be a musical stave? Throughout, Céline Gittens and Tyrone Singleton make the perfect partnership, a joy to watch. And dancer Lachlan Monaghan sings… Is BRB heading towards musical theatre? In the end, they all sing.

Everybody is a Fan brings everyone together in more classroom work. And then the pièce de résistance—Tony Iommi—we go out on a high. I want an encore, but it doesn't come. Still, it’s a happy, sentimental show.

Here’s another bit of information for those who don't buy the soon to be a collector’s item programme in its ‘vinyl record’ sleeve… “Black Sabbath played their first ever gig in The Crown pub just a stone’s throw from Birmingham Royal Ballet’s base on Thorp Street. The pub was recently saved from demolition and is deemed a heritage site by fans.” Who’d have thought it? Acosta is indeed on to something.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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