Ballet Black’s 2016 triple bill, performed at the Oxford Playhouse on Friday 10 June, featured astonishing technical ability. The performances of Cristaux, To Begin, Begin, and Storyville evoked longing, greed, desire, love, and sadness, often in quick succession.
It was a sage choice to begin the show with Cristaux, a short piece in which a male dancer attempts to get closer to a ballerina symbolising a crystal. In each piece, emotion seemed more important than respecting what are traditionally considered the boundaries of ballet technique. In this vignette, the relationship between the crystal and the other felt highly allegorical, evoking insatiable greed and the transformation of woman into an object of desire. The combination of costume, lighting and sound created a visual spectacle; as Sayaka Ichikawa bourréed onstage, the audience was blinded by her Swarovski-encrusted tutu and tiara, which scattered the already fractured lighting. Appearing as though literally crystallised herself, the lighting design made her look as though she was surrounded by thousands of other crystal fragments. This was enhanced by the precision of the choreography — miniscule fluctuations of fingers and arms and slight but harsh tilts of the head aided the evocation of a crystal. Steve Reich’s Drumming Part III aided this vision, and the technical difficulties the dancers faced with this demanding piece were successfully overcome.
The pas de deux was unconventional as there was very little physical contact between the dancers. The crystal captivated the partner, who appeared as dazzled by her brilliance as the audience, and tried to get closer to her in any way possible. He mimicked her movements, was led by her, and was eventually permitted to lift her, before finally being denied any contact with her at all. At this moment the choreography diverged from the more romantic conventions of the pas de deux as he frantically reached for the elusive crystal, trying to reach for something unattainable.
The following scene, To Begin, Begin, seemed at first to be a disparate set of duets and trios, performed by six dancers, yet by the climax of the piece the snapshots blended together. The first duet was particularly striking; the looks between the dancers seemed so intimate that the viewer felt like a voyeur peering into a separate, private world. Lighting and music marked the difference between each fragmentary piece, with the change from sadness-tinged blue to sunshine-amber lighting. The third duet showed a definite shift in the relationships between the couples, weaving the fragmentary ideas together. The final separation of the main couple was especially poignant amidst the togetherness of the other pairs. The use of blue silk as a way to link each fragment, however, felt awkward: sometimes aiding the transition from one piece to the next, at others impairing the dancers’ movements altogether.
The final piece, Storyville, is apparently a firm favourite of Ballet Black fans. This piece had a more obvious narrative than the others. It is a rags-to-riches-to-rags-again tale, following the rise and fall of a young girl, Nola, in New Orleans. Her innocence is manipulated by Lulu White and Mack, owners of a dancehall, who entrance her with luxuries and later lead her to her demise. The use of lyrics and dancers carrying cards to explain elements of the choreography was disconcerting. Whilst these features aided explanation of the plot, they also drew the focus away from the dancing itself; in the explanation of White’s past the lyrics seemed to overwhelm the rest of the piece. Nevertheless, the dancers were effectively responsive to the music, and the choreography was not afraid to challenge established tropes of ballet as a topically conservative genre to explore content such as lust and alcoholism. Nola stumbled on and off pointe, and fell out of graceful pirouettes, reaching for a vodka bottle in between; meanwhile, Lulu White sensuously tumbled and fell over her lover Mack to display the dangers of seduction. The conventional tale of corruption was transformed by this captivating blend of drama and dance.
Mesmerising and heart-wrenching, but also raucous and lustful, Ballet Black’s latest triple bill is a worthwhile view for fans of both classical and modern dance, as well as anyone who enjoys a good story.
For more information about Ballet Black and their upcoming performances, please visit their website.