Choreographers: Cassa Pancho and Gregory Maqoma
Twenty years ago, Cassa Pancho established Ballet Black to improve the representation in the world of ballet for dancers of colour. She discovered that managing a company that attracted a wealth of dancers, musicians, designers, and choreographers was a full-time job, so she let her own choreography lapse in the service of other artists. She also managed to persuade Freed of London, the leading manufacturer of ballet shoes, that ‘flesh coloured’ didn’t necessarily mean ‘pink’.
Ballet Black has brought a double-bill to the Barbican to celebrate. First, Pancho has created a new dance piece, Say It Loud, her first new choreography for a while. There are seven sections, seven different musical styles, four female dancers, four male dancers, and a world of wonder. The sections are separated by voice-over readings of positive and negative comments that the company has received, but those are the only pauses. The dances merge and develop, speak to each other, offer grace and power and a few jokes; it isn’t seven separate dances, it’s one flexible, fluent dance. The ease with which the women come down off their pointes and ground themselves, the switch between street dance and classical forms, keeps the audience as far up on their toes as the dancers.
The second piece is Black Sun, directed and choreographed by Gregory Maqoma. A powerfully conceived, cosmic dance with a narrative better acquired from the programme notes than the stage, but the dancing is awesome. Particularly noteworthy is the long section with percussion supplied by the dancers. They vocalise, beat on buckets as drums, build complex rhythms with their bare feet on the stage floor. It is compelling and propulsive, reminiscent of The Rite of Spring, and completely spell-binding.
David Plater makes the bare stage shimmer with dappled effects, criss-crosses the space with shafts of light, moves between stark white and delicate blues and purples to enhance the movement and the mood. Never static, never intrusive, always at the service of the dance: simply brilliant. The costumes, by Jessica Cabassa for Say It Loud and by Natalie Pryce for Black Sun, are similarly subtly coloured, flowing with the dancers’ movements, beautifully judged to enhance the dance. In Black Sun, gold accents on the black costumes glint and glisten under the white light to make powerful visual statements.
Music for Say It Loud comes from numerous sources, Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante for the score for Black Sun, and the variety of the scores, with rapping and soul songs, African chanting, jazz standards, a whole gamut of music of Black origin, makes for compelling listening and a rhythmically complex structure.
The dancers work together, support each other, share the space generously. The collective force of the company is wholly devoted to the stories they tell: they are Alexander Fadayiro, Cira Robinson, José Alves, Isabela Coracy, Rosanna Lindsey, Mthuthuzeli November, Sayaka Ichikawa, and Ebony Thomas.
Runs until 27 March 2022