black cast

Pictures: Johan Persson   

Black Sabbath – The Ballet

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome


I was there moments don’t come along that often in theatre but this is one of them for those lucky enough to have bought, begged, borrowed or somehow managed to get hold of a ticket for one of the most eagerly anticipated events on this year’s calendar.

The music of Brummie heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath and the city’s world renowned ballet company did not seem the most likely of bedfellows and when Birmingham Royal Ballet’s director, Carlos Acosta, had the idea of combining them it was hard to decide whether he should be congratulated . . . or perhaps committed.

But it not only worked, it sold out every performance months ahead, mining a vein no one even knew existed. It stretched both dancers and music into unfamiliar territory far from their comfort zones defying the conventional ideas of both allet and heavy metal creating an unfamiliar platform for both.

For those familiar with BRB this is more their traditional triple bill in structure if not content. Three short ballets by three different choreographers but here with the common link of music based on the early back catalogue of Black Sabbath.

We open with Heavy Metal Ballet from Cuban choreographer Raúl Reinoso which features War Pigs, Iron Man, Solitude and Paranoid in the score from Christopher Austin and Finish composer Marko NyBerg.

Austin, incidentally, also conducted the always excellent Royal Ballet Sinfonia.

A full symphony orchestra enhances the music, refines and repositions it, less headbanger more contemporary dance, but the driving, pulsating energy and rhythm is still there in the likes of the anti war song War Pigs, with opening lines from Ozzy Osbourne.

Iron man introduces guitarist Marc Hayward as an almost Pied Piper figure, creating a hypnotic effect on the dancers – and can the guy play.

marc and guitar

Marc Hayward and guitar with BRB dancers

In the midst of it is a lovely pas de deux from Yaoqian Shang and Javier Rojas with what must be a world record contender for longest stage kiss – it might still be going on for all we know. Maybe they mistook superglue for lip gloss, who knows, what we do know though, is it took an amazing level of skill to maintain it through some intricate and complex ballet moves making it mesmerising to watch. It was all danced to an orchestral version of the haunting and far lighter romantic track of Solitude proving Sabbath are far more than amps turned up to 11 and thrash chords.

The end comes with what is almost Black Sabbath’s anthem song, Paranoid giving full rain to Hayward’s talents.

The second act is The Band, a more reflective piece from Brazilian choreographer Cassi Abranches and with voice overs from the likes of Tony Iommi, the driving force of the band, who is even heard talking about losing the tips of his fingers on his fretting hand in a metal press. Ozzy mentions the drugs bill, and wife Sharon tells of the band and his sacking. It made it a hard job for the dancers to compete with the words and the words were lost in competing with the music at times but the thoughts were there.

Incidentally, BRB principal dancer, Australian Lachlan Monaghan, turned rock star for the night as a more than decent singer, a talent with somewhat limited opportunity to shine in ballet's more normal fare. 

the kiss

Yaoqian Shang and Javier Rojas in a mammoth kiss that even Rodin would have been proud of

Chinese born composer Sun Keting has used the tracks Black Sabbath, the almost Baroque Orchid, the ethereal Planet Caravan and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath as the themes with another lovely pas de deux, this time from Céline Gittens and Tyrone Singleton.

The third act Everybody is a Fan is created by Swede Pontus Lidberg, the lead choreographer, with music composed by Austin, the lead composer and it reprises Iron Man along other songs from previous acts including a return of Hayward with more pulsating Paranoid. 

Once again, though, there is a track that defies the conventional idea of heavy metal, the more lounge sound instrumental Laguna Sunrise with Hayward’s guitar and dancer Riku Ito in their own pas de deux.

The final act also brought out the life sized winged demon on an upturned 1970’s car wreck as a sort of chromed homage to the past or perhaps a pointer to the future – which is a posh way of saying not a clue what that was all about but it certainly made an impact.

Act III dispenses with scenery, incidentally, revealing the vastness of just part of the huge Hippodrome stage area and the towering height of the fly loft – far off in the unseen stage right is a truck lift which can lower an artic trailer from street level to stage level. Nothing to do with the ballet, but an interesting snippet just the same.

A surprise on Press night was a special appearance, guitar in hand, of Tony Iommi, at the finale, and more than half a century on from when Black Sabbath gigged at The Crown by New Street Station, he has still got it with lightning hand speed.


Céline Gittens and Tyrone Singleton in a sensuous, more traditional pas de deux

In each act there was dramatic lighting from K.J in a stark setting from Cuban designer Alexandre Arrechea. Three pieces, all different but with common themes, not just the musical provenance, there was always a look of joy on the faces of the dancers, invested in the idea and caught up in the magnitude of the event. The first act was the most balletic, the second more contemporary dance while the final act is a mish mash, a mix of dancers from acts I and II combined.

For the dancers, even in the more traditional setting of act I, there were unfamiliar, complex and difficult steps to master and in each act nothing was simple or easy, even if the dancers always made it appear that way.

As for the music, metal was forged and beaten into an orchestral setting where it was never intended to venture and it worked, melody and meaning were found and expressed by a symphony orchestra, which, as anyone who follows BRB will know, can play anything that comes their way without batting an eyelid.

The result is a fusion of two different art forms that logic says should never even come within sight of each other, yet they did, and it worked, creating another step in the constant evolution of ballet.

It introduced Black Sabbath and metal fans to ballet, and perhaps gave some ballet fans an insight into the heavier and darker end of rock music a genre that despite its reputation even has its tender and romantic moments.

Whether metal fans venture back for The Nutcracker in November or ballet fans hit Amazon music for Black Sabbath tracks is a question only the future can reveal. For now though they can all say: “I was there”.

Black Sabbath – The Ballet continues to 30-09-23 at Birmingham Hippodrome than heads to Plymouth (12-14 October) and Saddler’s Wells (18-21 October).

Roger Clarke


If you want to hear the original tracks the BRB have them HERE in all their vinyl glory.


Index page Hippodrome  Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre