Review: Ballet Black - Linbury Studio Theatre

Performance: 25 February - 4 March 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 28 February 2014

Ballet Black in Arthur Pita's 'A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream',   Cira Robinson as Titania & Jose Alves as Bottom & Isabela Coracy as Puck  . Photo: John Ross

Performance reviewed: 26 February

The next time I feel like a flutter I’m going to call Cassa Pancho for a tip because the founder and director of Ballet Black has an unerring eye for a sure-fire bet. As an avid follower of this miniature, yet mighty company for many years, I can say that annually (if one discounts the inevitable look-back on the occasion of their 10th Anniversary), without fail, Pancho unveils a mixed programme of all-new work from choreographers who might be well-known or even just starting out. It’s a risky business but in Pancholand, every one’s a winner. This might be Ballet Black’s 13th season but no luck is required to inform her antennae for commissioning splendid new work. Put simply, she has done it again.

Like Pancho and her outstanding little company, Arthur Pita is also on a roll. Everything he touches appears to be made by Midas and his new take on the crown jewel of Shakespeare’s comedies has genius writ larger than a Banksy wall mural. Cleverly entitled A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pita spins a sexy, cheeky frolic that squeezes out the essence of this romantic farce with the minimum of fuss. That he does so much with a bare stage is further enabled by the outstanding designs of Jean-Marc Puissant, including his clever use of the simplest props; effective lighting, designed by David Plater and, of course, by the engaging charisma of Ballet Black’s own little band of rude mechanicals.

As with Peter Quince, Nick Bottom and their midsummer night’s Pyramus and Thisbe cast, there were – for many years – also six performers in the Ballet Black crew. But the ensemble is changing and growing, now numbering eight. Of the six dancers that comprised the company at the outset of its tenth anniversary, only two remain and it is therefore no surprise that these senior artists, Cira Robinson and Damien Johnson, should be cast as Titania and Oberon. Robinson – a miniature, yet mighty dancer – is a particular delight, with the formality and precision of her classical language (this being the first tutu-ballet ever performed by the company) the prelude for a comedic tour de force. I cannot believe that anyone in the history of dance can ever have exuded such emotion and sexiness while dancing with an ass (a transformation here that has José Alves’ Bottom mostly performing as a four-legged donkey). This being Arthur Pita and Ballet Black, Puissant’s gorgeous tutus were worn without tights, which somehow enhanced both their beauty and relevance to a hot summer’s evening. A very royal purple sash, diagonally displayed across her bodice, denotes Titania’s rank.

Pita focuses on the mischievous antics of Puck (an impish Isabela Coracy dressed as a cub scout and sporting a flowery beard) and the mixed-up emotions wrought by “his” love dust, which has the usual quartet of lovers canoodling in the woods but adds a fling between Helena (Sayaka Ichikawa) and Hermia
( Kanika Carr) into the mix. There is a charming soft quality in Ichikawa’s expressions of surprise.

The seductive charm of Pita’s swirl of ideas is enhanced through a surprisingly eclectic, yet quite brilliantly appropriate, score. It ranges from Handel for the formal courtly intro and exit, through a group of songs by three iconic and incomparable female vocalists: the exotica of Malambo Part 1 and Gopher by Yma Sumac; Eartha Kitt singing Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love) and Pal Joey’s Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered emoted by Barbra Streisand. The latter songs were interspersed by Jeff Buckley singing Lilac Wine and the song section was concluded by the Antony & the Johnsons’ classic, Twilight. I list these song titles because anyone with the scantiest knowledge of the narrative of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will know instinctively where they fit into the story!

This one-act ballet has the legs to become a classic. I was given to thinking where it fits in any definition of dance style and came to the conclusion that Pita is opening a door to a new genre that defies a simple description. It is innovative, thoughtful and attractive; a feast for the eyes and the mind; and it’s brimful of fun.

This longer work was ably supported by two 16-minute pieces from Martin Lawrance and Christopher Marney, two choreographers who are closest to a residency tag with Ballet Black. In Limbo, Lawrance evokes a feeling for the idea of existence between life and death, strengthened by the beautiful power and emotion of Robinson as his central force, ably sustained by Alves and Jacob Wye. Marney patches together musical gems by Tchaikovsky and Ravel to build upon a pas de deux I saw at a Ballet Black fundraiser in 2009. It was a brave choice to use Ravel’s Pavane pour une infant défunte (one of the most melodic works in that rich era of French romanticism, which has already been used to great effect by Ashton, Balanchine and Tudor) but Marney creates a flow of images that fit this music’s tender lament and he makes the lyricism in both pieces of music soar in gentle, mournful choreography. The quartet of dancers were all excellent (and a special mention to first-year apprentice, Christopher Renfurm, for stepping up to the plate) but my eye was continually drawn to the special quality of softness in Ichikawa’s movement and gesture, which seemed to fit the mood of the piece perfectly.

So, another mixed programme that scores an A+ with every new work. I would love to end this review with an exhortation to go and see this London season but you would have to beg, borrow or steal a ticket, else otherwise queue for a return, since these seven shows have been sold out for some weeks. It may be time either to move this annual show to a bigger venue or (preferably) give it a longer run!

Continues at the Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, until 4 March 2014 – returns only

Photos: John Ross

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for,, Dancing Times, Dance Europe and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards in the UK.

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