if at first

If at First: Bhungane Mehlomakulu, (left), Elijah Peterkin, Megan Chiu, Taraja Hudson, Acaoã De Castro, IsabelaCoracy, Helga Paris-Morales, Ebony Thomas and Love Kotiya. Pictures: ASH

Ballet Black: Heroes

Birmingham Rep


Since its creation in 2001, the brainchild of Cassa Pancho, Ballet Black has a mission – it aimed to radically change the level, or in some cases, the lack of diversity in classical ballet and its perception in the mind of public and audiences.

It started as, and still is, a small company of black and Asian classically trained ballet dancers set up by Pancho, who has a Trinadadian father, when she graduated from Durham University where she studied classical ballet. Its spark had been her idea of talking to four black ballerinas about their experiences. It was a simple enough idea for her dissertation – except there were none to be found..

Since its humble beginnings Ballet Black has built up an enviable reputation as a dynamic, innovative and exciting company, and through that it has achieved part of its mission, increasing the diversity to be found in a dance audience.

Heroes brings a revisited piece, The Waiting Game, from South African company dancer Mthuthuzeli November who joined the company in 2015 and, as well as being a dancer, is building a growing reputation as a choreographer.

It opens though with a world premiere piece, If At First, from Sophie Laplane, the Franco-British artist and Choreographer in Residence at Scottish Ballet.

This sees white clad figures vying for that symbol of power, of leadership, of top dog, of patriarch or matriarch . . . the crown. Its power as a symbol is universal, Shakespeare would have no history plays without it, and Laplane grabs it and plays with it.


Ebony Thomas and Isabela Coracy in The Waiting Game

If At First is inspired by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Eroica series of paintings. Basquiat, a much troubled soul after the 1987 death of his friend Andy Warhol, was to die of a heroin overdoe in 1988. His Eroica paintings were inspired in turn by Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, eroica being hero in Italian, and strains of the symphony appear in the piece, which like paintings and music explore the different facets, complexities and contradictions of heroism.

It opens with a crown above the dancers and descends into short scenes punctuated by a not so much pass the parcel as snatch the crown game as the dancers vie to be the one, the hero.

David Plater’s lighting is an added star in the piece, always alert, always part of the action, expanding and contracting the stage and there are brilliantly conceived scenes where dancers on sage are mirrored by their huge shadows thrown on the back wall by front stage low lighting

Costumes, (Jessica Cabassa), also play their part. Each of the nine dancers is dressed identically in light grey and white, apart from the obvious shape, there is no distinction between man and woman, implying hero is not gender specific, we can all be heroes at some time or another.

Amid the moments of chaos chasing the crown there are tender pas de deux and an emotional death which sees a crown symbolically ripped apart in grief. The whole piece is set to a mix of contemporary and classical music from Beethoven, Olivia Bell, Dans Dans, Michelle Gurevich, Dustin O’Halloran and Tom Harrold which is at times insistent and pulsating, at times lyrical, at times weeping with emotion.

Ater the interval came November’s The Waiting Game, first performed in 2021 and returning with a new score from November and Alex Wilson, a piece which explores life – not the philosophical meaning of it – just the mundane, everyday, repetitive nature of it – the life of . . . well, us, most of us at any rate, not so much movers and shakers as clock in clock out, pay cheque at the end of the month, wage slaves.

Our lead character dons, or is donned in an overcoat, he is our everyman, which makes the whole thing more personal, he has become us in dance form, while the music gives us snatches of African rhythms, moments to encourage more classically inspired ballet and then a silver and gold Lamé jacketed finale that could have been lifted from any Bob Fosse Broadway musical.

There is the clever use of a doorway come box prop (Richard Bolton and Phil Cristodolou) which is wheeled around the stage and which our Everyman and the remaining nine cast can use to leave or enter into . . . well they leave and enter, or just wait to leave of enter, or . . . the door is always there, that’s all that matters.

We even have voices in this piece where our reluctant everyman has to be persuaded to play his part, living his life “two minutes at a time”.

Personally I found The Waiting Game the more engaging of the two pieces, livelier and more fun . . . so, perhaps we are not all cut out to be heroes.  If at first you merely observed while you were encouraged to become involved in The waiting Game.

Heroes though is a testament to the vision of Ballet Black’ s own hero in Cassa Pancho changing the face of ballet step by step and superb dancing and complex and intriguing choreography all combining to bring ballet alive will do Ballet Black’s deserved reputation no harm whatsoever. To 14-06-24

Roger Clarke


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