While it’s always special to see Ballet Black, it was particularly special to see this talented, versatile and innovative company at the Quays Theatre for the opening night of their autumn tour – their first live performance since the pandemic hit.
The double bill opens with Then Or Now, which was previously performed as part of Darcey Bussell’s British Ballet Charity Gala earlier this year. Unusually for a modern work, Will Tuckett’s choreography is steeped in classical ballet vocabulary, with just a touch of contemporary movement. It’s set to a soundtrack of solo violin intertwined with readings of Adrienne Rich poems; these inject a quiet level of emotion into the piece, whether tenderly romantic, sadly reflective or downright critical – the reflection on society becoming personalised, moving from using ‘we’ and ‘us’ to ‘I,’ is especially poignant when viewed in the context of COVID, the loneliness crisis and social media behaviours.
The tone of the work is complemented by minimal yet atmospheric staging – the dancers perform within a semi-circle of chairs, taking turns to watch each other, and beautiful lighting creates contrasting areas of golden-hued warmth and shadow.
The choreography is sometimes a literal interpretation of the text, and sometimes more abstract, but throughout it is crisply performed by the company’s eight dancers at an often relentless pace. Seeing ballet in a more intimate venue like the Quays allows the audience to hear the squeak of every pointe shoe, see every drop of sweat, and really appreciate the superhuman stamina of these professional dancers up close.
The second half of the bill, The Waiting Game, is choreographed by Senior Artist Mthuthuzeli November, and takes the audience on a real journey in its comparatively short run time. Focussed on a man experiencing an existential crisis – a role danced by November himself – the ballet begins with a vivid portrayal of an anxiety attack, the dancers’ frantic, repetitive movements backgrounded by a chaotic mix of sound clips and an ominously ticking metronome.
The man is dogged by a chorus of his negative thoughts, both in the form of recorded vocals and the remaining cast, who are dressed in flamboyant black and white costumes reminiscent of Harlequinade clown characters. This menacing ensemble works together to physically hold the man back from opening a door – which also continually moves around the stage – and thus escaping the cycle of his thoughts.
However, eventually one dancer breaks free from the troupe and begins to playfully interact with the man, teaching him to feel and enjoy movement. This marks a shift in the man’s psychological state – mirrored in freer, more expansive choreography – which culminates in a joyous, confetti-strewn jazz number to Etta James’ Something’s Got a Hold on Me. Colour and light flood the man’s inner world in this uplifting and musical-worthy finale – the end to the evening that we all need, and one which really encapsulates the joy of a company at being back onstage.