Barbican Theatre

15th May 2024

Stuart Sweeney

Ballet Black is 22 years old, and the achievements of the company have been rewarded with Arts Council of England National Portfolio Organisation status, providing four year funding and greater stability. I always look forward to Ballet Black’s new programmes and they have built up an enthusiastic audience – the five performances in the Barbican 1150 seat theatre were sold out. Five of the nine dancers are new, replacing experienced performers who have delighted us over the years. The good news is that the company still looks great.

Mthuthuzeli November’s The Waiting Game, is billed as a revival, but he has created his own score for this season and made a wide range of changes to the structure and the detail of the choreography, so it can perhaps be seen as a new work. November writes that he was inspired by Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and addresses, “…the exploration of the absurdism of existence and the passing of time through movement and musical ideas.”

Ballet Black in The Wating Game
Photo: ASH

In the first half, a central figure is beset with anxieties as he makes his way through the repetitions of everyday life. He is often surrounded by figures in see through plastic jackets embodying the concerns and memories that weigh heavily on him. A glass door moving round the stage plays an important role as the way the anxieties reach him and return to his subconscious. November’s contemporary choreography for the ensemble is full of energy and held my attention. Ebony Thomas, as the central figure, is impressive in his expressive depiction of the travails of everyday life through fluid movement.

Ballet Black in The Waiting Game
Photo: ASH

The second half makes a further shift from the original with the action moved to a dance company waiting to go on stage – a 5-minute call is made, They amble about in relaxed fashion, except for the central figure, now the star of the show. Malaise still dominates his thoughts as he sits on stage and one of the others comes across and talks him round, saying that it is all worthwhile. And then the show hits the ground with more boisterous movement in dazzling jackets.

Looking back, the original version had a more meditative quality, whereas the new version often has great dynamism, as the dancers give it their all. Both versions have their place and the original is still available on the Ballet Black website for £5:

The programme opened with Sophie Laplante’s If At First, her second work for Ballet Black. CLICK! from five years ago was great fun. If At First is very different and Laplante writes that it, “…sets out to pay homage to the quiet heroism..of those who struggle.” However, these introductory notes left me puzzled as I tried to link the text with the performance.

The work opens with a single dancer, Isabela Coracy, in some distress looking up at a crown, circled by sitting figures. Crowns, inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiet’s use in his paintings, appear in every scene. Eventually after Coracy’s forceful solo en pointe, the crown descends, and she takes it. In an abrupt switch, strident music and fast movement presents a chaotic struggle for the crown. These switches continue and made me think of fierce competition rather than “quiet heroism”.

Helga Paris-Morales and Love Kotiya in If At First
Photo: ASH

In between the rapid ensemble sections, we see solos and duets, perhaps embodying the quiet heroism. Helga Paris-Morales and Love Kotiya perform a gentle, loving duet with much floor work, providing a contrast to the earlier competitive scenes. Kotiya, who only recently left training, moves with fine grace and is certainly someone to watch for the future.

In a later scene, Acaoã De Castro wears the crown and is feted by the other dancers, but then they disperse, leaving him lost and alone. De Castro’s tortured movement was impressive. At the end, we see Taraja Hudson and Helga Paris-Morales in a sensual, loving duet, providing some of the most memorable choreography in the work. While there are some satisfying sections in If At First, I found the overall concept elusive. However, the dancers’ skill and enthusiasm were clear throughout.