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INALA - A Zulu Ballet

Mark Baldwin
Sisters Grimm - Ella Spiro and Pietra Mello-Pittman
Peacock Theatre
to

INALA is a fiesta, a fusion of multicultural rhythm, sound and movement celebrating difference between dancers and their diverse backgrounds, alongside musicians with skylark voices that sing from the rafters.

Initially seen in 2014’s Edinburgh International Festival, now making its West End debut after sold-out runs, INALA—meaning an abundance of goodwill in Zulu, was born out of a desire to collaborate and communicate across cultures; to “unite different backgrounds and celebrate diversity, giving equal voice to one space,” the programme explains. This mostly happens as we see a sweeping mix of talents and cultural backgrounds inhabit the stage.

First, there are the exuberant vocals from Grammy winners Soweto Gospel Choir with music by Paul Simon, collaborators Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the composer Ella Spira. The Choir exudes a strong sense of place from the inflections of sounds to movement, backed by a simple stage design of boxes and suitcases, bathed in a warm African peachy lighting. Not only are the singers blessed with Bible-belting vocals, but they can dance with in-built rhythm and gesture reflecting such musicality—an umbilical chord from body to voice.

Then, Mark Baldwin’s choreography shimmers and the 10 dancers map out his creations with artistry, faultlessly executed in vibrant physical response to the music. Hailing from companies such as Rambert, The Royal Ballet and Richard Alston Dance, each dancer is technically adept and Baldwin’s movement score takes such talents into account. Each dancer is offered a party piece from spinning top Nahum McClean, in a round of dizzying multiple turns to neatly, precisely executed, Cunningham inspired moves of Elly Braund. There’s also the standout performance from Nafisah Baba bringing her own brand of warrior, fighter, bird to the stage.

With such glories laid out before us, it’s easy to forgive the fact that there’s little storyline as the evening moves from one atmospheric vignette to another with no apparent narrative build. Tunes sung in Zulu, passionate love songs about homeland are flowingly toe-tapping, whether we understand directly meaning or not. The programme says they're singing about cows and home and how much it costs to seal a marriage dowry; more cows.

The only rub is that at times there’s a discord between the choir and the dancers. In some numbers, the singers belt their hearts out, while at the same time, two or more dancers float around them distractedly in overpowering bird headdresses, thus music and dance vie for attention rather than blend into one glorious whole.

Overall, the show works best as an ensemble, where musicians and dancers line up as one then break out into showpieces, a bit like an end of term review. There is a warm and fuzzy chemistry between the dancers and musicians and such a line-up offers a real chance to fulfil the brief of collaboration and equality onstage. Such cohesion is best seen in the second half where musicians attempt to echo moves of the dancers with comic results. Yet the singers pull it off and transform the movement into their own style, so in the end the high kicks, jives and swings just feel like part of their own shtick.

The piece ends in a high-octane finale with the choir kicking legs high and akimbo, united in their love of home called “Woza Sambe”. Traditional tribal moves, ballet, hip-hop and song come together with force and gusto, so who really cares where it’s all going? The singers bring the house down exuding such stagecraft, it occasionally overshadows the excellent dancing on display tonight.

Reviewer: Rachel Nouchi