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  • Eddie Hewitt

Ballet Black at the Barbican

Updated: Nov 12, 2020


The Suit and A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Barbican, Friday 16th March 2018

"The course of true love never did run smooth"

William Shakespeare

Love may sometimes cause the heart to sink, indeed, but everything about this production was en pointe. Not just the pirouettes and the arabesques, the lifts and the elevation, the swings and the moments of stillness, but the emotional heights, and the depths too. The collective sense of purpose of the dancers, their superb timing, their excellence in movement and creation of mood. The enjoyment created for all. The sadness when the story called for a different response. This was a double bill of ballet stories to tease, torment and delight. I relished all this and more from a fantastic vantage point in the Barbican.

The Suit

The Suit is a new dance adaptation of a story by South African writer Can Themba. A tale described as “Heart-wrenching and beautiful” by Artistic Director Cassa Pancho. That sounds perfect for a ballet.

It starts with a scene from everyday life between a man and a woman, then moves on to something more adventurous between another man and the same woman, then moves out into the market place, back to the bedroom, outwards into society again and potential normality, and finally to a scene of horror and despair. All of these apparently simple transitions of character and place are represented with breath-taking physical movement and escalating levels of emotional intensity.

Cira Robinson and Mthuthuzeli November in The Suit (photo: Bill Cooper)

A simple breakfast with apparently affectionate exchanges, followed by moments of rapture in an alternative scenario, a horrific revelation, a clash, soul searching, desperation on the verge of insanity, a last-gasp attempt at reconciliation, and ultimately a slide into oblivion. All of this happens within the confines of a limited physical space on stage, but stretches far beyond into the extensive realm of human engagement. Deeply disturbing, but artistically brilliant.

Undone by the evidence of an indiscretion - Cira Robinson in The Suit (photo: Bill Cooper)

Most of the best stories involve sadness and conflict. The Suit takes it all the way, bringing us a terrible ending that no one should ever have to experience. Remarkably, this tragic story is conveyed beautifully and sensitively.

Although a fairly short piece, the ballet conveys extensive human drama and far reaching passion. The dancers switch between ecstasy and bewilderment. The feelings come from deep within and are frantically expressed outwardly. The story ends leaving us, it feels to me, with all of our hearts broken, and with only twenty minutes to reflect on the sadness and the chances of escaping such a story in our own lives. All over a cup of coffee or something stronger.

Cathy Marston, Director and Choreographer, suggests in the programme that The Suit is a story “where nothing is simply wrong or right”. In love? Really? I could go so far as to say that love is sometimes random and changeable. The story seems to support this at least. Life is definitely full of challenges. And the dancers certainly are “real, three dimensional people.”

A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream

For two minutes, it seems as if we are about to have some classical ballet in the second half. I’m not sure I want to go formal here. But wait, Puck comes on, sprinkles fairy dust over the other dancers, and away we go with another burst of contemporary magic. We are in for another treat. This time with a Ballet Black 'signature piece'.

In A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream, Arthur Pita, Director and Choreographer, presents us with a playful and imaginative alternative to the well-loved Shakespeare folk tale. A story from ancient times, reworked into a fast moving, highly contemporary extravaganza of passion, mischief and gender fluidity. Shakespeare would be proud of Ballet Black for picking up and expanding on all of these themes. A fitting production for #ShakespeareWeek.

Dancing in a Dream: L-R Sayaka Ichikawa, Ebony Thomas, Marie Astrid Mence, Mthuthuzeli November (photo: Bill Cooper)

Again, the dancers transport us beautifully into the depths of emotion and they scale the heights of passion, but with only short bursts of terror in this story. We follow a band of lovers through a swamp, swatting mosquitoes. This is not so far away from the Forest of Arden. Partner switching is comic, at first, but soon becomes serious and more involved. The characters move from comic reality to amorous awakenings to true love. There is no escape from love. There is no escape from falling in love with an ass, even. Pita’s version is true to the original here, too, with some splendid shape-shifting resulting in both ridicule and pathos.

In love with an ass: Titania (Cira Robinson) and Oberon (José Alves)

(photo: @photobyASH via Twitter)

The dancing is beguiling and enchanting. A joy to behold as well as to perform. The movement of the lovers and dreamers was drawn from a profundity of human emotion that seemed to transcend earthly experience. Along with the dancers, we collectively moved into an ethereal dimension.

There were also moments of deliberate contortion and plenty of fun. Puck is skilfully awkward. This character has tricks to play after all. We see lust as well as pure love. Trauma as well as rapture. We don’t see how everything is resolved and who ends up with who, but that extends the mystery.

Spreading mischief: Puck (Isabela Coracy)

(photo: @photobyASH via Twitter)

And so, here, love is sometimes to be trifled with, and yet even when this happens, a grander scheme is revealed, with universal resonance.

Final reflections

The Suit and the A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream present us with contrasting love stories. Both explore the theme of love and the impacts of change. Consequences are inevitable; in one story due to conscious decisions, in the other due to magic. Through either simple fleshly desires or mysterious forces, humans can be weak and easily swayed. Humans can also be unpredictable, sometimes volatile, and invariably vulnerable.

You were brilliant! (photo: Bill Cooper)

And still more

Exploring the human condition within the context of conveying a narrative, in a way that is aesthetically beautiful, presents ballet dancers with extraordinary physical and emotional challenges. After the performance, Senior Artist Cira Robinson amazingly took barely ten minutes to come back on stage to join the post-show discussion. Coming out for a chat about ballet after such extreme physical exertion and emotional engagement cannot be easy, but here again Cira enchanted and inspired. Patron Kwame Kwei-Armah and Artistic Director Cassa Pancho were equally engaging and full of insight and authority.

© Eddie Hewitt 2018

Thanks to Ballet Black, Bill Cooper and @photobyASH for the photographs


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