One senses that the motto of Cassa Pancho, the founder and artistic director of Ballet Black, must be “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”.  For several years, she has applied the same formulaic pattern for the mixed programmes that have represented the centrepiece of each season for this small-scale company with a loyal and ever-growing following. Short – mostly non-narrative – pieces provide the hors d’oeuvres, preparing the way for a more substantial, invariably story-based, choreography that has the whole of the second act to itself. In the triple bills of recent years, Pancho has commissioned both experienced and emerging choreographers, the latter already on the verge of being “hot” properties, to make two new ballets; augmented by a third that she revives from Ballet Black’s enviable back catalogue. 

For the second successive year, the company has returned to the Barbican Theatre, selling out the 1,150-seat auditorium for all three nights. The two smaller works were a new piece by veteran choreographer, Michael Corder, and a returnee from Martin Lawrance. The new narrative ballet was a colourful rewrite of Red Riding Hood by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, a choreographer in great, global demand. And, so, the sixteenth year of this extraordinary company sees Pancho’s hitherto successful strategy continue unabated.

It still works well, although I feel that it might work even better, artistically, in a more intimate venue. The two opening works were essentially dances, without scenery, for two pairs in largely consecutive duets that occasionally seemed a little lost to me, back in Row P of this large auditorium. It’s a dilemma for a hugely popular company, capable of selling out big theatres, to stage a mixed programme with a small ensemble. Eight dancers can’t all perform three pieces consecutively, even with an interval; and so inevitably the group has to be split into units that are not large enough to command a theatre of this size. But, it’s a nice problem to have.  

Nonetheless, Corder’s House of Dreams was often captivating; moving four dancers around each other and the stage like water lilies revolving in a pond. Corder has framed four brief movements of dance to the gorgeous piano music of Claude Debussy, as played by Pascal Rogé on his 2-CD 1994 recording. There is much to be admired in the subtle yet persuasive quality of Rogé’s under-stated pianism but I feel that this performance, on this stage, deserved a live interpretation. Corder has a magical touch in weaving meaningful movement onto this dreamy music, evoking poetic, impressionist imagery to complement Debussy’s shimmering sounds; and establishing a clear distinction between the youthfulness of Astrid Mence and Jacob Wye and the more reflective maturity of Damien Johnson and Sayaka Ichikawa. 

Lawrance’s Captured was premiered in 2012 (he also made Limbo for the company, in 2014).  The title signposts a narrative intention and this follows though in fractured imagery of threat and confinement. Lawrance took inspiration from the dark and sinister moods within Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 11, providing a notable contrast to the pastoral imagery of Debussy. It seems to be an intense choreographic essay in vulnerability, evoking a sense of imminent adversity throughout. These inherent tensions were evident in movement that brought the fragility of Shostakovich’s music into view. Cira Robinson – the only returning member of the original quartet – aligned convincing emotions with the vivacious, yet always elegant, clarity of her dancing. 

Lopez Ochoa is a choreographer with an unerring eye for what works. She claims to “…find narrative ballets a real challenge” but Red Riding Hood is her third British story-telling commission and it completes a hat-trick of winners. Her choice of music comprises a selection of largely French, mostly nostalgic, recordings that, taken together, presents a surprisingly holistic score. Yann Seabra’s colourful designs and props (the simplicity of weighted balloons, to represent trees, is a touch of genius) together with the clever, menacing use of silhouettes by lighting designer, David Plater, establishes a production that seems somehow more substantial than a work for eight dancers.

Red Riding Hood opens with the kind of tight-knit, geometrically-patterned group dance that would be meat-and-drink to a hip hop crew, such as Diversity, and the eight BB dancers nail it.  Robinson is sweetly vulnerable in the title role, though this story has a feisty twist in the tail.  And, speaking of tails, in the role of the Wolf, Mthuthuzeli November’s appendage is unsubtly suggestive of another organ, swung around in his “gangsta” hands as both a tool of seduction (to lure three girls at once before setting his sights on Little Red) and a sign of his undoubted machismo. November is a hoot in this wickedly funny role. Another twist is that the doomed Grandmother is played by a man, José Alves, who enjoys his own comic solo en pointe. When Pancho considers work to revive in future seasons, this one should be high up the list.