Artistic Director: Cassa Pancho MBE
Choreography: Arthur Pita, Christopher Marney, Christopher Hampson
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Ballet Black, established by Cassa Pancho in 2001, is a company for international dancers of black and Asian descent with a focus on classical ballet styles. The company has from the start collaborated with inventive choreographers to create a repertoire of new classical-based work that embraces both narrative and abstract ballet traditions.
The company – here on their first visit to the Lowry – present a Triple Bill of two new works by Arthur Pita and Christopher Marney and Christopher Hampson’s Storyville, which first premièred in 2012.
Cristaux, by London-based Portuguese choreographer Arthur Pita, is inspired by Balanchine’s Le Palais de Cristal, and is an abstract duo that explores the mesmerising, reflective light of crystals, seen through the twilight half-world between sleep and dreaming. Two crystal elements really shine out. The first is the glittering white Swarovski-encrusted costume of Cira Robinson – Mthuthuzeli November’s midnight blue shirt is also scattered with crystal. The second is the crystalline clarity of Pita’s choreography. Robinson is impressively secure en pointe and her every move comes from a place of statuesque strength that radiates both sharply and softly from a cool centre.
Pita wisely avoids setting the dancers’ timing strictly to the naggingly insistent rhythm of Steve Reich’s Drumming Part III, allowing the movement to hover and sweep around and in response instead. As Reich’s hypnotic music allows little room for emotiveness, the piece defiantly retains a clear emotional coolness that suits its theme but keeps viewer engagement slightly at bay. The increasingly demanding choreography and the trust between Robinson and November are impressive.
If Cristaux is icily glittering, Christopher Marney’s To Begin, Begin is warm and liquid. This is a series of duets and trios punctuated by a shimmering wave of floaty ocean-blue silk that flows above and around the dancers. Marney’s choice of several pieces by pianist-composer Dustin O’Halloran perfectly suits the melting, fluid choreography which is full of close partnering and draped, unusual lifts: the second duet is especially lovely. However, this selection of music is so achingly melting and emotional that the piece as a whole becomes almost cloying, despite the innovation and interest in Marney’s choreography. There is a lack of variation in mood and tone that somehow undermines the quality of the performances and movement.
Christopher Hampson’s Storyville completes this varied triple bill. This fully-narrative work is the tragic tale of Nola, a farm girl who finds herself in the sleazy dancehalls of 1920s New Orleans – Storyville is the now long-gone red light district – where she falls prey to the unscrupulous Lulu White (Sayaka Ichikawa) and her partner and lover, Mack (Joshua Harriette), and loses her innocence and her love.
Storyville is delightful and quickly draws you into the narrative, which is slightly otherworldly and familiar from Hollywood movies of the 1920s and 30s. If Cira Robinson was coolly detached in Cristaux, here she wonderfully captures innocence and innocence lost – her drunken dance is especially enjoyable. Ichikawa’s Lulu White is a fine character performance – sassy elegance and cynical falsity emanating from her every move. Harriette comes close to stiff caricature but this short ballet gives little room for him to develop his character and he is impressive in his trio with Robinson and Ichikawa and the voodoo dream sections.
Hampson has set Storyville to Kurt Weill and the mix of instrumentals and songs suits and defines the narrative strongly. The minimal staging and slightly-odd costuming don’t give a very strong sense of New Orleans – Weill is not especially associated with the city, and the music is as evocative of Berlin, Paris or Marseille. But this is a strong subject for a modern ballet – Hampson has already expanded on the original – and would only benefit from a less-compressed story, more space for character development – a clearer sense of Damien Johnson’s Sailor, for example – and a more clearly defined sense of place. Having said all that, Storyville here is thoroughly enjoyable and suits the company well – and they deliver it with great style and character and energy.
This is a strong triple bill that showcases well what the company can do – abstract, semi-narrative and fully narrative new ballet. All achieved with just eight dancers, all of them strongly distinctive and technically skilled. Hopefully, this will not be Ballet Black’s only visit to the Lowry.
Reviewed on 19 June, 2016 | Photo: Bill Cooper