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Review: BALLET BLACK at Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Ballet Black's latest double bill celebrating the company's 20th anniversary is now touring

Review: BALLET BLACK at Theatre Royal, Stratford East Review: BALLET BLACK at Theatre Royal, Stratford East Cassa Pancho's Ballet Black turned 20 last year and to mark this milestone they celebrated with a double bill of two works seen at the Barbican earlier this year and now touring; one an out and proud affirmation on their journey as a company and the second a tribute to their ancestry and heritage.

Say it Loud showcases their tapestry of the different talents on and off the stage. Accessible, humorous but with a punchy message, it's a typically Ballet Black piece because everyone, not just ballet fans, can enjoy it. It features a diverse and uplifting soundtrack ranging from rap to Etta James dreamy "At Last" and choreographed by the dancers and their Artistic Director.

The opening moments sees the full company on stage, eyeballing the audience while an onslaught of verbatim comments are relayed, "It's cultural appropriation! Why isn't there a Ballet White?" "Shouldn't you be doing ballets about slavery?" You get the idea. The dancers respond with a shrug and an eye roll before disbanding.

Mthuthzeli November delivers a vigorous solo, impactful and dynamic to Flowdan's "Welcome to London". Later, the three ladies take centre stage, they softly bourée, elegant and fluid in purple chiffon. They filter in and out, the costumes get a tweak to shift the mood - feathered fans, a trilby hat etc. A more traditional tutu style skirt is worn by Cira Robinson in an elegant pas de deux with José Alves that charms and elevates in equal measure.

Having enjoyed a range of Ballet Black programmes over the years, I couldn't help but feel a "regular" BB show would have ended with Say it Loud rather than opened with it but this is a company with a statement to make. Nor would Pancho ever want to think of her company as predictable. Black Sun, then, is a gear change. Choreographed by Gregory Maqoma, it draws its energy from the sun and the moon and the powers drawn from then.

Dancers begin, light and ethereal, the females up on pointe quivering, flickering as if responding to a series of tiny electric shocks. They finish low and heavy, dancing down into the ground in a sequence of relentless stamps and choral chants, the sweat is flowing and the breathing is laboured as they commit entirely to the cause.

Maqoma's work demands more from its audience but, despite the heavier narrative, it is no less successful. It demands more from its dancers too, who double as musicians and vocalists as the piece meets its commanding climax. Black Sun is enhanced further through Natalie Pryce's striking black and gold costumes which catch the light beautifully on the dramatically lit stage.

Ballet Black is a small troupe where each individual face will be familiar to those who follow the company. Each with a unique identity, different shape, style all coming together to speak their truth. It's unfair to pick out stars from the seven when each brings their own creativity. Cira Robinson's classical technique will please traditionalists, Isabela Coracy exudes strong, steely power while Mthuthuzeli November displays endless energy and impassioned coolness in both pieces.

Through no fault of their own, the small stage of the Theatre Royal in Stratford does not lend itself particularly well to dance, with the performers needing to watch themselves especially in full ensemble moments, but these are small quibbles. Pancho acknowledges in the programme notes that she did not expect the company to last more than five years, but this latest milestone suggests surely many more stages will be able to house their full athletic prowess for another twenty years to come.

Ballet Black: Double Bill is at Stratford East Theatre until 21 May

Image: Bill Cooper

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