The first thing that jumps out at you when watching a Ballet Black performance is how there is not a single white dancer on stage. The ballet industry is one of the least ethnically diverse art sectors and it is common to see almost all-white companies in theatres. Seeing seven incredibly talented people of either Asian or black descent dominate the stage was uplifting and empowering; the narrative of ballet being an exclusively white art form is reversed as soon as one lays eyes on the company.
However, the first act quickly takes your attention away from the racialised implications of the company and immediately draws you into the world of “The Suit”, a piece choreographed by Cathy Marston. It tells the story of a couple in South Africa in the early 1950s. Matilda has cheated on her loving, doting husband, Philemon, and the plot revolves around Philemon’s reaction to her affair; he makes her carry around the suit that her lover had left in their room until she cannot bear the humiliation any longer. Sayaka Ichikawa, who plays Matilda, is an expert at emoting with every single part of her body. She immerses the audience in Matilda’s chaotic emotional process right till the end. Her partner work with both José Alves, who plays Philemon, and Mthuthuzeli November, who plays her lover, is flawless and heart stopping. Alves has beautiful technique and is stunning as well. The tension in his movements brought the angry husband to life.
One of the most interesting aspects of that piece was the use of the set. There was a sheet and three chairs that were constantly moved around to create a bed, a dinner table, and even positioned to imitate the layout of a bar. The use of space was incredibly creative as well, especially when Philemon was walking about in town while Matilda was at the side of the stage, at home with her lover. It was an altogether artistically brilliant piece, with a slightly eerie and dark vibe owing to the ominous presence of “The Suit”.
The second piece was a lighter comedic piece. It was Arthur Pita’s “A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, a story loosely based on the Shakespearean play. It is about Puck enchanting six dancers and causing them to fall in love with the wrong people, or, in Titania’s case, with a donkey. Puck turns one of the male dancers into a donkey and makes Titania fall for him. The other two pairs were wondrously gay; the two girls did a fun ballet duet together to the saucy tunes of rumba and walked off the stage holding hands, while the two men danced a beautiful, contemporary style duet and ended up falling asleep holding each other. However, the queer representation in this piece was questionable. At times, it felt a bit as if the two same-sex couples were being compared to the interspecies couple, and at other times, it felt as if queerness was used as a punch line.
Nevertheless, the piece was fun, dreamy and wonderful. I particularly enjoyed Isabela Coracy’s Puck, who pranced around the stage with an air of mischief and confidence. The lighting complemented the fantastical setting beautifully, with hues of purples and greens contributing to the magic of the performance. One of the most creative parts was when the dancers were made to run across the stage with thin coloured sheets covering their faces and flowing out gracefully behind them to signify Puck’s spells.
Ballet Black got many standing ovations at the Norwich Theatre Royal when the performances were finished, and they were well deserved. The company is incredibly talented and each dancer contributed something unique to the whole performance. Both Martson and Pita incorporated different styles into their pieces — there was a significant amount of contemporary as well as a hint of ballroom — and the dancers pulled them off beautifully. These versatile dancers of colour continue to transform the ballet world one performance at a time.