Ballet Black, a company comprised exclusively of dancers of black and Asian descent, brought three very different pieces to the Tramway in Glasgow last week.

Choreographer Arthur Pita’s dreamlike duet, Cristaux, was a beautiful opening to the evening. In a sparkling white tutu, Cira Robinson’s rigid classical balletic movements starkly contrasted the smoother body pop motions of her partner, Mthuthuzeli November. Facing away from the audience, the pair danced separately, watching their own shadows that were projected on the back wall. Although well suited for this effective use of silhouettes, the Tramway’s stage amplifies any noise made by the performers, which was particularly unfortunate when it came to Robinson’s pointe shoes. The loud echoed tapping somewhat broke audience emersion and made her footing seem heavier that it probably actually was. This was a real pity but, to the dancers’ credit, the problem was rectified in the following numbers.

Mthuthuzeli November and Cira Robinson in <i>Cristaux</i> © Bill Cooper
Mthuthuzeli November and Cira Robinson in Cristaux
© Bill Cooper
The circular dance motions when November and Robinson finally joined together, accompanied by Steve Reich’s bell-like Drumming Part III called to mind an ever-accelerating mystical clock. Meanwhile, at other points, time seemed to slow down such as when November ran on the spot or during the lifts where November supported Robinson as she jetéd in a single slow motion leap across the stage.

I very much liked the ending of the duet where, after Robinson had left the stage, November returned to his starting position on the floor, where he performed his pop and lock motions from the beginning while lying down, as if he was imagining the dance that we had just seen. I wonder whether this was an indication that the whole thing had been a dream.

The mesmerising number which followed, To begin, begin (ch: Christopher Marney), featured a gorgeous series of lover duets set to expressive piano and strings. The dancing was joyfully carefree with beautiful lifts, and the sheet of flowing blue silk that canopied above the dancers’ heads, or wrapped around their bodies, or just trailed behind dancers running across the stage between sequences was very pretty. Such a simple theme for the duets might have been in danger of becoming tedious but there was enough variety to maintain interest and, in the absence of any scenery, the lighting played an important role in transporting us, for example, from the airy watery blues of the first duet to the warming orange sunset of the second. I thought the entire effect was delightful and I was captivated throughout.

The highlight of the evening was the final piece, Storyville (ch: Christopher Hampson), about a naïve young farm girl (Cira Robinson) who is lead astray by some unsavoury characters and tragically succumbs to the temptations of 1920s New Orleans. Where the previous numbers were more abstract, here the dancing is completely plot and character driven, and it is fantastic. Robinson’s acting is mindbogglingly good, and her performance more than compensates for the somewhat predictable plot. Her youthful delight when she first arrives in Storyville is completely believable, as is her childlike acceptance of the gifts that she receives from the gangster, Mack (José Alvis). We watch her gradual decline of partying, drinking and working in a sleazy job in which she is repeatedly assaulted by clients and her boss. Her ever intensified pleading with her sailor boyfriend not to leave her is utterly heart-breaking and by the time she meets her staggering alcoholic demise she can’t even walk, stumbling on her pointe shoes and dragging herself along the floor begging her prior companions to help her.

Sayaka Ichikawa and Cira Robinson in <i>Storyville</i> © Bill Cooper
Sayaka Ichikawa and Cira Robinson in Storyville
© Bill Cooper
Another stunning performance came from Mack’s haughty girlfriend (Sakaya Ichikawa), whose story about the long line of suitors in her own past is a witty foreshadowing of what the protagonist is becoming. Ichikawa’s saucy glances and coy expressions perfectly complement the lyrics of the music, ‘Barbara’s Song’ from The Threepenny Opera, which speak euphemistically of being ‘perpendicular’.

The jazzified suite of music from The Threepenny Opera is combined with sultry French songs to bring the roaring Louisianan twenties atmosphere to life. This is compounded when placards, paraded by slinky showgirls, introduce the various characters and indicate the passage of time. The costumes have a pleasingly 20s style, particularly Mack’s askew fedora, and even the young farm girl’s little doll is later used as a voodoo puppet that some Mardi Gras dancers stick pins into. The dancing, the acting and the overall design came together to produce a wonderful experience.

In fact, I highly enjoyed all three performances in Ballet Black’s triple bill and, judging by the cheers and stamping of the audience at the end of the evening, everyone else did too!

****1