REVIEWED: Ballet Black at The Lowry

Laura Joffre | 21st November 2018


Ballet Black were at the Lowry on Monday for an exhilarating performance on the stage of the Quays Theatre. The seven-strong company, founded seventeen years ago by artistic director Cassa Pancho to promote black and Asian dancers, presented a double-bill with two very different but equally compelling ballets.


The Suit, a new work by Cathy Marston, who already delighted the Lowry’s audience with Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre last June, is a very intimate, character-driven piece. Inspired by Can Themba’s eponymous short story, it tells the tale of Philemon and Matilda, a young married couple. Philemon finds that Matilda is having an affair, and her lover leaves his suit behind as he runs away. Philemon asks Matilda to keep the suit with them, like a permanent, unavoidable reminder of her guilt.


Marston has an exceptional ability to tell a story through movement without the use of any coded language: the position of the dancers on stage, the way they look at each other (or not), the quality or speed of the movement are enough to translate pages of written words with a devastating strength. With the efficiency of the short story, we grow attached to the characters within minutes. 


José Alves and Cira Robinson in Cathy Marston’s The Suit


The way the ensemble of dancers is used is smart and imaginative: they become the set and props, a crowd, step into the action as characters, or reflect the emotions of Philemon and Matilda. The set is minimal (three chairs which transform into a bed and two metal frames) but the illusion of a busy staging is given by the chorus of dancers, who recreate a lively road, a train station or even portray everyday objects in the apartment. 


On top of being first-class dancers, the cast are fantastic actors. The pain of the loving husband (danced by José Alves) who finds his wife in bed with another man is palpable, so close and so real. The last scene is very moving, as Matilda, interpreted by a heart-wrenching Cira Robinson, ties the tie around her neck, trembles on pointe with her terrified eyes looking straight into the audience before letting go. Philemon is left alone with the suit – his own guilt – and the audience can feel his loss and despair long after the lights go down. 


The second piece is a radical change of tone: A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream is an extravagant dancing comedy loosely based on Shakespeare’s classic. Choreographed for Ballet Black by Arthur Pita in 2014, it is now considered one of the signature pieces of the company.


The company in Arthur Pita’s A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream


The piece starts with three majestic and very serious couples doing very serious ballet, with precision and authority. The girls are in tutus (gorgeous designs by Jean-Marc Puissant, who works, among others, with the Royal Opera House) and pointe shoes, and the dancing is pristine – for a minute, it really looks like they are going to perform a Balanchinestyle ballet. But then everything goes…bonkers! The mischievous Puck (Isabela Coracy) spells a cast on the dancers and all the characters let loose: the result is hilarious. The whole piece is completely surrealist, to the delight of the audience, including an impromptu visit of the master, Salvador Dalí – who just passes by to pick up the moustache he dropped there the other day.


It is rare to see a company that excels in both dramatic and humorous styles, and to watch the same seven dancers switching styles so successfully in the same evening is a treat. What is good with such a small company is that all the dancers are cherry-picked, and as a result are among the best out there. When she founded the company, Cassa Pancho’s aim was to provide role-models for young ballet dancers with various ethnic backgrounds; seventeen years later, Ballet Black is still breaking boundaries with high-quality performances, and attracting an audience more diverse than ever.



Ballet Black are performing at the Watford Palace tonight and York Theatre Royal next week.