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Pendulum / CLICK! / Ingoma

Choreography Martin Lawrance, Sophie Laplane, Mthuthulezi November
Ballet Black
Barbican Theatre
to

I once thought the Barbican theatre stage too big for Ballet Black. Tonight’s triple bill (two world premières) proves me wrong: filling the stage with passionate presence, interesting music and David Plater’s striking lighting, it packs a powerful punch.

Martin Lawrance’s 2009 Pendulum duet to Steve Reich’s music (8 Microphones, 1968) opens proceedings with showcase performances from Sayaka Ichikawa and Mthuthulezi November. Silence, taut counterbalances, a storm of sound sends one off into a vortex of movement. The other stands and watches. Each owns the space entirely, alone and then in parallel mirror moves.

Richard Alston’s influence evident in Lawrance’s classical / contemporary crossover choreography, as the name suggests and the reverberating sound indicates, moves instigate reinvigorating moves. Show-off speedy solos challenge the other to do better: if you can do fouettés, so can I.

But, it’s when they come together that they rise above the industrial sound score. In minimalist black costumes, they could be sleek, slick, efficient, interactive components in precision machinery.

Sophie Laplane’s CLICK!, as the capitals and exclamation mark spell out, is snappy, sassy, and sharp. Unisex suits in sizzling colours, five dancers under customized spotlights click hard enough to “keep the tigers away”. You know the joke? It must have worked because there are no tigers within miles…

Kenny Inglis’s musical arrangements of Ken Beebe’s 2017 “Snapping Fingers” and his own “Static Click” add to the merriment. Shoulders shimmy, pointe shoes stab, and big personalities as bright as their suits light up the stage.

The mood shifts to sultry night with “Just Snap Your Fingers” (The Mudlarks 1962). Jackets come off, trousers come off, and the dancing is full of longing—“snap your fingers and I’ll come running”. She snaps her body and he is putty in her hands. There are skating swirls and dummies in love. Slinky entwining moves and metronomic pulses pull bodies close, and the light turns blue.

Colour filters—magenta, green, yellow, red and blue to match the suits—change the mood and paint the stage, corral the dancers and capture their poses. The clicks get louder and faster—it’s a runaway train and lights out. José Alves (so fine in The Suit), Isabela Coracy, Marie Astrid Mence, Cira Robinson and Ebony Thomas excel in this funky upbeat number.

What follows after the interval is made of sterner stuff: Mthuthulezi November’s Ingoma—it means song. The first company member to be commissioned to create a dance for it, he has chosen an emotive narrative that tells of the African Mine Workers’ Strike in 1940s South Africa. Sixty thousand took part, thousands were wounded, several killed, how little has changed since. The strikes in 2012 in Marikana resulted in thirty-four dead.

So, a subject close to his heart, and it shows. Not only do the dancers dance, they also sing, of hope, of redemption and delivery from hardship. Gestures are supplicating, hands in prayer. The womenfolk in grey dresses and headscarves are a mighty force, too, fists at the ready in impassioned solos and group dance. Revolution is in the air. The air turns red.

Yann Seabra’s stage design focus is divided: a third of the stage is given to a black layer of coal grit, its periphery demarcated by a rope. Miners, in hard hats and boots, with pickaxes at the ready, assemble for work, their hat lights strafing the auditorium.

But their harsh lives unfold centre stage. Collective and private stories reveal personal suffering, pent up stress, and dreams. The Lord’s Prayer is sung in Xhosa; sizwe is repeated; there’s call and response. Gerard Sekoto’s striking "Song of the Pick" painting of 1947 and Asisipho Malunga’s resilient poem "Blue Head" written for Ingoma are vividly invoked.

Peter Johnson’s score is cinematic: heartbeat pulse and resonating clicks and water drips. The men’s African dance inflected moves, foot-stamping, deep squats, are muscular and rhythmic; the women’s emotive and supple. The dancers are superb, intense, committed.

Is Alves the men’s leader or their minister? His intimate duet with Sayaka Ichikawa is emotional and deeply moving. He carries her on his back; her hands flutter like a trapped bird’s wings. His hands shake, too. He dances on and on in solo till he can dance no more, his body covered in sweat.

A cruel, demanding life. Ingoma ends in mourning. Ichikawa’s sad, lonely figure and the women’s compassion for her and those like her send shivers down my spine. I wonder if November or Seabra know William Kentridge’s work.

Its fourth consecutive year at the Barbican, Ballet Black, under the leadership of Cassa Pancho, goes from strength to strength.

Vera Liber