Artistic Director: Cassa Pancho
Choreography: Cathy Marston, Arthur Pita
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Ballet Black is a professional ballet company for international dancers of black and Asian descent, founded in 2001 by Artistic Director, Cassa Pancho MBE, in order to provide role models (and opportunities) to young, aspiring black and Asian dancers. Additionally, the company aims to bring ballet to a more culturally-diverse audience by giving greater presence to black and Asian dancers than is the norm. A look around the auditorium makes it apparent that Ballet Black is indeed doing an impressive job of accessing a more diverse audience.
This double bill is made up of two short narrative ballets, Arthur Pita’s A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream, a company classic from 2014, and a new commission, The Suit by Cathy Marston. Two distinct, distinctive and diverse pieces.
The Suit is based on a 1963 South African short story by Can Themba. The piece is set in the Johannesburg township of Sophiatown in the 1950s – the township was later destroyed under apartheid but then a melting pot of artists and writers, jazz and blues, and politics. It is the story of a married couple Matilda (Cira Robinson) and Philemon (José Alves) who’s seemingly content if routine lives are changed forever when Philemon returns home unexpectedly after leaving for work for his forgotten briefcase.
He is distraught and then enraged to discover his wife in bed with her lover Simon (Mthuthuzeli November). Unable to confront the pair, Simon flees leaving behind his suit of clothes. Noticing the discarded clothing Philemon assembles them into a complete outfit and insists that Matilda treat the suit as a guest in their home from then on, joining them for dinner and for walks out. The suit becomes the persistent presence of Matilda’s infidelity, shame, humiliation and punishment, and Philemon’s hard-hearted inability to forgive or forget.
The remainder of the 7-strong company function as a chorus, sometimes peopling the township as neighbours, commuters, or dancers in a shebeen(dancehall). At other times they form a moving set, becoming parts of the small house, or their collective movement represents the mental state of Matilda and Philemon: his circling resentment, her spiralling anguish. The use of the chorus is highly effective, never wasted or superfluous, illustrating or commenting silently on the clearly-drawn narrative. Jane Heather’s minimal set and evocative costumes – which clearly read somewhere hot in the 50s – and David Plater’s effective lighting help create an oppressive and emotionally charged scene.
The darkly-tragic emotional content is strongly-underpinned by Marsden’s choreography which gives Robinson, Alves and November real character: Robinson and November’s sexy duet is especially impressive with effortless and sinuous partnering and lifts. Robinson and Alves’s acting is also strong with their pain exquisitely and heartbreakingly reading vividly from face and body.
The diverse score, unified by being within the Kronos Quartet repertoire, with additional music by Philip Feeney gives The Suitgrit, modernity, authenticity and narrative coherence. The Suit is dark but is a very impactful and clear piece of short narrative ballet that has real quality and emotional impact through its clear storytelling and creative choreography.
By contrast, Arthur Pita has somehow managed to distil the essence of A Midsummer Night’s Dream into effervescent thirty-odd minutes of pure joy. Starting with three couples performing impressively-technical formal ballet (in tights and tutus) to Handel’s dramatic Sarabande, the sudden arrival of Puck – an unexpected and delightful Isabela Coracy – remixes the scene with (literal) handfuls of fairy dust. Somehow Pita manages to capture the complexity of star-crossed and mismatched lovers, Titania and Oberon, transformation and magic with tremendous wit and laugh out loud humour with impressive conciseness and clarity.
All the company are given the opportunity to demonstrate their technical ability, their acting and their personalities. Pita has found the precise balance between delivering highly-technical classical choreography and – by setting it to a deliciously diverse melting pot of music from the fantastically-odd Yma Sumac to Barbra Streisand, Jeff Buckley and Antony & the Johnsons – critiquing the fundamental silliness of classical ballet This is reminiscent of Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo, who approach classical ballet with equal technical flair and comic irreverence. Both manage to point out how daft and yet wonderful it is. And yet there are also moments that are touching and tender and authentic.
The completely bare stage is transformed by lavish swathes of haze, dappled moonlight and a kaleidoscope of jewel colours by David Plater: vividly creating a nocturnal and magical wonderland. A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream is vibrant, hilarious and colourful with a queer sensibility, tremendous technical flair, strong design and musical choices, and stellar performances from the entire company – and it packs in a remarkable amount of the spirit and content of the Shakespeare classic. Delightful.
Reviewed on 19 November 2018 | Image: Bill Cooper