16 May 2024

Ballet Black, Heroes double bill

Ballet Black returns to the Barbican with HEROES - a double bill of new works, by Sophie Laplane and Mthuthuzeli November, that neatly celebrates the hero in us all…

Bhungane Mehlomakulu, Elijah Peterkin, Megan Chiu, Taraja Hudson, Acaoã De Castro, Isabela Coracy, Helga Paris-Morales, Ebony Thomas & Love Kotiya in Sophie Laplane’s “If At First”. © Photography by ASHBhungane Mehlomakulu, Elijah Peterkin, Megan Chiu, Taraja Hudson, Acaoã De Castro, Isabela Coracy, Helga Paris-Morales, Ebony Thomas & Love Kotiya in Sophie Laplane’s “If At First”. © Photography by ASH

Ballet Black
HEROES: If At First, The Waiting Game
★★★★✰ London, Barbican Theatre
15 May 2024
Runs through to 19 May 2024, then touring

It seems all change and yet no change at Ballet Black. The big change is that 5 new dancers have joined the company of 9 - so there are plenty of new faces and new capabilities to come to terms with. But in many respects, there is no change at all - the award-winning company looks as impressive as ever, is presenting interesting new work and the run in the comfy Barbican Theatre was already totally sold out before the opening night. It’s been this way for many years, and Cassa Pancho’s 22-year-old company connects with a new and different audience like no other ballet company I know. And all done without a Swan Lake or Nutcracker in sight - bravo to that.

HEROES is a double bill of new works that celebrates the hero within us all. As a theme that’s most clearly shown in Sophie Laplane’s If At First, where crown-wearing becomes a common cypher in a series of touching cameos about life and relationships. Among a raft of scenes, there’s the downtrodden hero who puts up with abuse, the quiet hero who looks to build others up and make them better and collective heroes who provide a net of support and encouragement to the struggling. Everybody is dressed well, if anonymously, in the same light blue (Jessica Cabassa), but the dancers become real characters supported by deeply emotional movement and vivid, fresh thinking in duets and lifts.

Although it’s a strong team effort, I have to call out new (apprentice) dancer Love Kotiya for his expressive movement and ability to show a character - it brought a young Dane Hurst and Jonathan Goddard to mind, which is high praise indeed. The music for If At First is a diverse mix from Beethoven to modern day with some new work from Tom Harrold, and it maintains the pace - there are no longueurs here. All up, Laplane and her team have delivered a mini-masterpiece, that will bear repeated seeing and satisfies as both a dramatic work and also just as movement shorn of its deeper meaning - exciting stuff indeed.

Mthuthuzeli November’s The Waiting Game has had its own wait since a version was first shown amidst all the difficulties of COVID. But extensively reworked and with a new score (November and Alex Wilson), it’s presented wholly afresh. The centre of attention is The Man, going through a crisis of self-reflection and questioning the meaning of life in general and his in particular. You hear his mutterings and speculation as a voice-over while he negotiates a never-ending series of doors, hounded by Isabela Coracy and other Ballet Black dancers, showing his nagging imagination. Recently promoted Ebony Thomas is The Man, and we feel his bewilderment. But there is only so much bewilderment and musing on life I can take, and just as I was starting to think about my own life and what the traffic would be like on the Marylebone Road, Waiting Game seemed to end abruptly, and the house lights went up. You could feel the tension in the audience - should we clap for an interesting piece, or is there something else… which there was.

The second part of Waiting Game is where you realise The Man is the star of a West End dance show, and the show is about to start, and he is still pretty conflicted. Enter Taraja Hudson as the (heroic) Presenter/friend who talks him around, and the show goes on with, as Cassa Pancho notes in her introduction, some of the most sparkly jackets you’ll ever see”. And ultimately, The Man is the hero for conquering all his fears and hoofingly wowing us. It’s a fine end to a thoughtful, if perhaps overly long work, and boy do we know it’s the end - queue thunderous appreciation and applause. So, no change for Ballet Black there, either!