Ballet Black are on tour and, for one night only, performing at the King’s Theatre Edinburgh (Saturday 8th June) with three very individual and powerful works –“Pendulum (2009), and new commissions “Click” and “Ingoma”.
For anyone reading this review who is not familiar with “Ballet Black”, the company are in their 18th season and, although committed to providing an artistic platform for dancers of black or Asian origins, their collaborations with people to create work have no cultural barriers; Ballet Black is a company for everyone to be able to express their creativity in as broad a spectrum as possible. Having just said this though, for some reason my review schedules over the past few years have never allowed me to catch up with the company in a live performance, and tonight was my first chance to correct that oversight.
Opening our triple bill of performances this evening –
Pendulum Music (8 microphones), 1968
As its name suggests, “Pendulum” (first created in 2009 by choreographer Martin Lawrance) is a work of contrasts swinging between moments of intimate closeness and conflicting combat, and this duet featuring Sayaka Ichikawa and Mthuthuzeli November captures these conflicting moments with style and grace in movement as fluid as a pendulum swinging. Opening to silence, there is that initial jolt to your senses as this is not what we are used to in dance, but there is even here music in your head as the rhythm movement of our two dancers somehow creates the missing music naturally. A slow, almost heart-beating rhythm builds up in tempo to an almost hypnotic drone (all matched by the choreography). Pendulum Music (8 microphones), 1968 is from a composer that I always admire for his innovative vision to break boundaries of what we consider to be music, Steve Reich .
In total contrast to “Pendulum” is the high colour visuals, music and movements of “Click!”
“Click!” is set to new and existing music, and this approach is very much at the heart of this work (and others) by choreographer Sophie Laplane, and here the idea that everything can change with a “click of the fingers” is used with innovative style.
My main exposure to Sophie Laplane as an artist has been as a dancer with Scottish Ballet, but now that focus is changing as Sophie is proving to be one of the most innovative and creative new choreographers of the moment with her work gaining attention from many companies, including Ballet Black.
“Click!” is a work with five dancers, José Alves, Isabela Coracy, Marie Astrid Mence, Cira Robinson and Ebony Thomas, and designer Yann Seabra has given us a visual look that just takes me back to the visuals of late 1960s and early 1970s vinyl record sleeve covers. The music that Sophie Laplane is using here though comes from many different time periods and each piece of music here has its very own distinctive feel to it that draws upon Sophie’s contemporary vision and classical training for inspiration. There is also for me at least that one sound that evokes memories of a vinyl record album reaching the end of its play and the needle just not coming off the record as it should do. If you are too young to remember vinyl records and only know CDs then sorry, this will mean nothing to you. “Click!” is the name of this work and with the visuals in front of me on stage, that iconic finger clicking logo of “Stax” records was never far from my mind here.
Our final work, and taking up the second half of our show, was the amazing “Ingoma”.
The first fact that amazes me about this work is that it is the first work from Mthuthuzeli November, and, for a premier work, this is not only inspired dance choreography that uses the power of dance to tell a story to its full potential, but a powerful work of theatre in its own right. Ingoma was co-commissioned by the Barbican.
Ingoma means “a song”, and this song is the voice of South African miners and their women and children echoing down through the decades from the 1940s to now. In the time frame of a little over one week, the brutality used to suppress this strike still makes almost unbelievable reading – over 1200 workers were wounded and at least 9 were killed. The inspiration for this work by Mthuthuzeli November comes from several sources including the poem Blue Head (2018) by Asisipho Ndlovu Malunga and the 1947 painting “The Song of the Pick” by Gerard Sekoto.
It is, I think, almost impossible to separate miners (no matter what they are mining for) and politics, as miners have throughout history been exploited in whatever country they are in; it is just the degree of exploitation that changes, and this fact is as true historically as it is now in contemporary times. Perhaps the fact that I come from a mining family (thankfully though I never had to follow in their footsteps) gives me a direct connectivity to this work as miners, no matter where they are in the world, share the same “work-space”. What Mthuthuzeli November is giving these South African miners and their families of the 1940s is not only a voice, but a dignity and humanity which they were denied at the time.
At first glance there may to some people be connections between dancers and miners as our male dancers stand on stage in their physical and powerful glory, and some might connect that image with physically strong images of miners, but that is an illusion, and there are major differences between the two. A dancer becomes a dancer out of choice, but a miner often becomes a miner out of a lack of choice to do anything else. Also, a dancer builds a strong body over many years of training that will keep them strong (one hopes) for much of their life, but a miner’s body has that strength and power worked out of it decades earlier than nature intended leaving often only physical pain in its place long before its usual time. What makes “Ingoma” is the sense of that physical toil in the daily lives of this community and their constant struggle with poor working conditions and everything that comes with that issue.
I am probably going to upset many people in our modern “Politically Correct” world with this next statement, but it has to be made. We live in a world now of “blind casting” and the concept that no one should be barred from a role by their cultural or personal identities and, whilst this is a concept that we should all strive towards, there are at times very special works that come along and break this rule, and “Ingoma” for me is one of them. This story is one of the black mine-workers’ struggle against a white government in South Africa in the 1940s and, although it could be done, to dilute the cultural identity of the performers in this work would for me dilute much of the identity and power of this work.
Review by Tom King