The Suit + Ingoma

Choreography Cathy Marston, Mthuthulezi November
Ballet Black
Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

Ingoma: The Ballet Black Company Credit: Mthuthulezi November
Marie-Astrid Mence in Ingoma Credit: Bill Cooper
Ingoma Credit: Bill Cooper
Ingoma Credit: Bill Cooper
The Suit: The Ballet Black Company Credit: Bill Cooper
The Suit: The Ballet Black Company Credit: Bill Cooper
The Suit: The Ballet Black Company Credit: Bill Cooper

It’s not been an easy journey, but nearly twenty years later (helped along the way by Deborah Bull, former Royal Ballet principal and creative director of ROH2 amongst others) founder, AD and CEO, Cassa Pancho has much to be proud of: Ballet Black is firmly on the map. Her small troupe is outstanding, as are the company’s production values.

Revisiting both productions, albeit not on first night but the second, I see the same cast as previously for The Suit, but with fresh eyes and ears, and it strikes me as better than ever.

Composer Philip Feeney’s selection and mix of music from a Kronos Quartet album is a sympathetic soundscape for the moving story, a dramatic parable on how sweet revenge turns bitter, hurting the avenger more than the victim in the end. Kevin Volans, Carlos Paredes, Margarita Lecuona’s Tabú, to name a selection, underline mood and emotion, give The Suit its structure. I am absorbed in the transfixing vocabulary of the sensual bodies on stage.

Sayaka Ichikawa has grown in the role of the adulterous wife who has to bear the stigma of her crime against her unbending husband, the suit left behind by her fleeing lover. José Alves again brings a clenched jaw edginess and intensity to his wronged husband.

The Suit eats with them, goes for walks with them, to the dance hall, where the wife thinks her husband is softening, but no, he can’t forgive her. His revenge has consequence he will rue for the rest of his life. It doesn't take much to break a soul cast under the gaze of the public eye, pilloried really. One’s pity is aroused, but not his. Isn’t he shamed by his actions more than by the cuckolding?

Cathy Marston, renowned for drilling down to the essence in her narrative ballets with a chorus that usually plays subtext and metaphor, symbolises inanimate objects and natural phenomena, has the other five dancers play the townspeople (great street scenes, bustle, cursory encounters, impatient waiting for the bus), friends, the lover, and household objects, mirror moves, make the bed, move the props, facilitate the action, accentuate the stage picture. In sepia browns against Jane Heather’s white spare minimal set, they seep into every space.

Designer Yann Seabra gives Ingoma a dark palate, too, coal mine black tar pitch floor, hardworking miners in khaki browns, their wives in prim dusty grey. David Plater’s lighting in shades of amber and red signals the rising anger, and impending uprising of the miners and their wives.

Prayers, pleas, chants, fierce stamping and boot slapping dances, “a fusion of ballet, African dance and singing created by company dancer and choreographer Mthuthuzeli”, “Ingoma portrays a milestone moment in South African history: the courageous strike action of 60,000 black miners in 1946”.

Tonight, November dances the lead in his own choreography (has he modified it I wonder) and one can see it means a lot to him. He lives the part. Alves embodied it powerfully the last time I saw it, but for November it is the very essence of his being, dancing till he has exorcised his anger and spent all his nervous energy—to the point of ritualistic collapse.

In v-formation, the others replicate his moves. But it is the dance for the quartet of women that moves me the most, their softness that of necessity turns to hardness. Their fists raised, they too dance frenetically till they drop, Marie-Astrid Mence in particular in her defiant solo. Music specially commissioned from Peter Johnson adds extra punch to the cathartic dance.

Formerly seen at the larger Barbican, these two forty-minute or so highly charged productions, both deep-rooted in South Africa, are tailor-made for the company and fit it like a pair of gloves. The Suit perhaps sits more snugly and naturally on to the Linbury smaller stage, whilst Ingoma’s frustrated protagonists are trapped, confined on that claustrophobic patch of land. Sitting close one misses not a thing. The dancers, Alves, Ichikawa, Mence, November, Isabela Coracy, Cira Robinson, Ebony Thomas, pass scrutiny. Great dancing, engaged and engaging acting.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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