Opening its eighteenth season (how is that possible?), Cassa Pancho’s chamber ballet ensemble has now clocked up 45 original commissions and last year’s newbie, The Suit by Cathy Marston, garnered two gongs in the recent UK National Dance Awards (equaling the number of awards won by both The Royal Ballet and English National Ballet). From being a much-needed prick on the conscience of an art form that was far from diverse, Ballet Black is now very much part of the Establishment.

Marie Astrid Mence, Sayaka Ichikawa and artists of Ballet Black in <i>Ingoma</i> © Bill Cooper
Marie Astrid Mence, Sayaka Ichikawa and artists of Ballet Black in Ingoma
© Bill Cooper

Year after year, the company showcases new ballets by well-known guest choreographers, but for the first time, the main premiere comes from within. Mthuthuzeli November joined Ballet Black as an apprentice dancer, in 2015, becoming a junior artist in the following year. He has minimal previous form as a choreographer and so Ingoma was a significant display of trust by Pancho, taking a risk that the young choreographer met with dignity in a work that showed great promise tempered by a need for greater variation in mood and momentum.

Ingoma, which means “song”, comes from the heart. November was born in Cape Town and his new work is influenced by the South African Miners’ Strike of 1946, which was brutally suppressed on what has become known as “Bloody Tuesday” when nine of the workers were killed. In researching this event, November reflected on similar atrocities in his lifetime, such as the Marikana massacre of 2012, where 47 protesters were killed.

November does not dwell on the abhorent politics of apartheid and discrimination; instead he emphasises the social and domestic consequences of loss. He begins the work with the house lights up as the six performers (four of whom are women) re-enact diverse aspects of labouring underground, dressed in boots, overalls and miners’ hats with head torches; carrying coils of rope and pickaxes. It set the scene well – perhaps too well, since I found myself yearning for darkness and dance.

November’s choreography has several distinctive qualities, notably in the mix of classical ballet and African rhythms and gestures. A strong central duet and a powerful women’s quartet, representing characters I assumed to be widows, were oases of enlivenment in a work that, although worthily earnest in purpose, tended towards a soporific dreariness that was hard to counteract (not helped by a challenging score). Nonetheless, even with these structural issues, November has achieved a ballet with strong, personal accents, which bodes well for further developing his unique choreographic voice.

Sayaka Ichikawa and Mthuthuzeli November in <i>Pendulum</i> © Bill Cooper
Sayaka Ichikawa and Mthuthuzeli November in Pendulum
© Bill Cooper
When I reviewed Martin Lawrance’s Pendulum at the Hackney Empire, back in 2009, I noted that it had an ‘assured future’ and so it is good to see the duet revived, ten years’ later, now passed on to be danced by November and the divine Sayaka Ichikawa. Opening in silence and then choreographed to the electronic heartbeat of Steve Reich’s score, Pendulum Music (8 Microphones) from 1968, Lawrance closely examines many aspects of the relationship’s dynamic, oscillating between empathy and tension in a duet full of muscular technique and beautiful patterns. It is such a well-judged piece of succinct eloquence and so suited to these dancers that it ought to be a signature piece in the BB Repertory.

The other new work was Sophie Laplane’s CLICK!, which describes in a non-narrative context just about every significance of clicking one’s fingers. It is full-square with the recent retro feel of the company in its quirky, humorous, effervescent movement, which is magnified by Yann Seabra’s colourful costumes and the eclectic choice of finger-clicking music, arranged by Kenny Inglis, including Ken Beebe’s Snapping Fingers and The Mudlarks’ recording of Just The Snap of Your Fingers. The problem with a playlist derived by subject is that it doesn’t necessarily gel and there was a kind of staccato bump in a couple of track transitions.

It was playfully and expressively performed by five dancers (the entire company minus those in the preceding duet), amongst whom the bubbly ebullience of Isabela Coracy (dressed in a vivid yellow trouser suit) was especially notable (or perhaps it just seemed that way because of the vibrant, technicolour yellow in a sea of pink, purple and grey). An elegant duet for Cira Robinson and José Alves was embedded in the centre of the work, acting as a foil for the swirling hip swivels and clicking fingers all around.

Pancho never fails to deliver an enjoyable and diverse evening of largely new dance and, this year, she has admirably provided a major choreographic opportunity for one of her own dancers. However, this time, for the first time, the programme’s most complete and satisfying work was the revival; made ten years ago.

***11