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BALLET Review
2024

IF
BARBICAN THEATRE
AT
FIRST
★★★★★
WORLD PREMIERE
15 - 19 May, 2024
all images © ASH

16 March, 2024
A co-commission with the Barbican
CHOREOGRAPHY: Sophie Laplane
LIGHTING DESIGN: David Plater
Ballet Black Images Ash 2.jpeg

Ballet, much like opera, tends to live in a world of its own. New audiences are few, and art organisations struggle to build connections between ballet and younger, more diverse audiences. As was seen with Emma Rice’s tenure at The Globe, gatekeepers of prestige institutions like to stick to what has always been for them if it’s not broke. This isn’t the case with Cassa Pancho and Ballet Black, who are presenting Heroes at the Barbican this week. They're becoming disruptors in the ballet world, which is allowing them to create works that not only energise ballet but also build lasting connections with this much-sought-after new audience.

 

Ballet Black’s new double bill features the world premiere of Sophie Laplane’s If At First and a return of Mthuthuzeli November The Waiting Game, which originally premiered by the company in 2020. There is a tight thread that combines these pieces, which explore themes ranging from love, life, and loss to self-reflection and contentment. What’s been created are two shows that powerfully infuse dance and music to create a stunning visual that is a timeless reminder of the fragility of life. In all that we pursue, a life can pass us by, leaving us with a sinking, lonely feeling and regret. But as the company discovers over their two shows, we all make choices that are guided by our needs, wants, and desires, but we don’t have to be held prisoner to them.

 

If At First is brave in its originality and is filled with a sombreness that is equally hopeful. From the moment the curtain rises as Moon Drifting 4 (After Beethoven) begins the piece, the audience is confronted with the striking image of a Basquiat-style white crown with a black outline hovering above the stage. Isabela Coracy, Olivier Award-winner for NINA: By Whatever Means holds court, and for the briefest of moments, one hears a pang of Swan Lake. This Tchaikovsky moment serves as a great way to give audiences a reference they know, as Laplane quickly comes out of this and unwraps a much more complex and pulsating narrative.

 

There are plenty of things one can interpret from this initial image of the crown, which plays a significant role throughout If At First, as does David Plater's incredible lighting. But the strongest feeling I got was how much the dancers are characters locked in a perpetual limbo, forced to revisit past memories that repeat but never fully allow them to heal or move on. The variations are peppered by the Dan Dans Coffee Grounds, which tends to roughly bring on the next piece and never allows the dancer of the previous piece a moment to be reflective.

 

Laplane beautifully realises this with Love Kotiya and Helga Paris-Morales. There are few moments that can capture the majestic beauty, massage, and meaning in quite the way Laplane, Paris-Morales, and Love have captured here. Both Kotiya and Paris-Morales are devastating in this piece; the rawness of emotion is felt the moment Dustin O’Halloran’s Prelude No. 3 begins. Paris-Morales carrying Kotiya onto the stage opens a deeply moving narrative that unfolds between a mother and son. It’s ultimately tragic and heartbreakingly effective, as the silence descended in the auditorium. Tom Harrold’s Mother & Son opens the second piece, and with Kotiya now alone, Harrold’s score, specially commissioned for the ballet, tries to offer some solace for the inconsolable Kotiya. In these variations, we see a mother possibly paying the ultimate sacrifices of life for her son, but we then have a son who can’t live without his mother.

Ballet Black Images Ash 1.jpeg

Here the crown is a symbol of manhood, which Kotiya tries to use to barter with fate to bring back his mother. Does he feel guilty that by becoming a man he contributed to his mother's passing, or does taking all the life lessons that his mother has imparted on him mean that she has nothing left to teach him? This becomes Kotiya’s purgatory; even though he didn’t covet the crown and was willing to give it up if it meant his mother could be saved, this lesson becomes a hard one for Kotiya to learn. As the piece comes to an end, I am struck by the image of Kotiya sitting still on stage, looking out into the audience, as Coffee Grounds comes on again to play Russian roulette with the dancers.

 

This theme of life and death is again alluded to in a piece that has a Faustian twist that delivers on this notion of coveting and desire. Acaoã de Castro is at the centre of this imposing piece that uses excerpts from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Erotica I and II." In Allegro con Brio, lively with brightness, de Castro is bombastic, knows what he wants, and gets it. This piece is more of a traditional ballet, and that serves it well. And like the previous piece between Kotiya and Paris-Morales, it is also split into two parts, with de Castro ultimately captivating. Having now gained all he wanted, de Castro sees no end in sight to what he can do, where he can go, and the backs he breaks getting there.

 

As the piece flows into Funeral March, de Castro becomes more reflective of the choices he’s made and begins to see the crown as an anchor rather than a symbol of power. This piece focuses on the choices we make and the impact that these choices have on those around us. In another move away from convention, Laplane has the company walk from stage right to left, straight through de Castro. It is a sobering and powerful moment, with the rest of the dancers refusing eye contact with de Castro, who is now a shadow of himself. This was also captured later on when they somewhat reluctantly lift de Castro, and they don’t look at him but look away. Lost, alone, and powerless, “his people" are no longer by his side, leaving more time for self-reflection. Now with the crown in his hands, de Castro realises that that which he had coveted so much has in reality left him with nothing.

"Their faith in Laplane and the ethos of Ballet Black has allowed them to genuinely share a real part of themselves in these pieces."

Coffee Grounds is inspired and acts like a rough scene change that one would see in a classic screwball comedy of the 1950s. But it also serves another purpose in that it shocks the audience with the emotions that each of the pieces has embedded within them. When Prelude 3 plays just after Coffee Grounds, the moment the piano starts, you are drawn into this new moment as the music creates an unimaginable connection between the audience, dancers, and music. In opera and theatre, a performer has words and songs to convey their feelings and emotions, but a ballet dancer doesn’t have that privilege. A dancer has to release themselves from all their inhibitions to build the most beautiful relationship of any art form, movement, or music. As we watch Paris-Morales, Love, de Castro, Coracy, Ebony Thomas, Megan Chiu, Bhungane Mehlomakulu, Elijah Peterkin, and Taraja Hudson, we see them connect to the music and the narrative within Laplane's choreography in such an unbelievable way. Their faith in Laplane and the ethos of Ballet Black has allowed them to genuinely share a real part of themselves in these pieces. One feels a connection to them as dancers, as people, and as performers.

This is wonderfully captured in the final piece, brilliantly set to Michelle Gurevich’s I’ll Be Your Woman with Taraja Hudson and Paris-Morales. This is a sensual and richly honest piece that incorporates a contemporary jazz-blues vibe that gives the piece more freedom and fun, and the physicality between Hudson and Paris-Morales is captivating. It’s a piece that does leave you hopeful, and the choices we make have to be the right choices for us, but being alone isn’t always a bad thing.

Not a day goes by when we don’t question the choices we make or the past we leave behind. This past can be unforgiving and inevitably follows us everywhere we go, contributing to our self-destructive traits. In modern life, this struggle to make peace with our past and our desires to be in positions far beyond our reach is a struggle we’re going to forever wage. If At First uniquely provides an insight into these struggles that, for me, offers one piece of salient advice: if you allow your past to determine your present, you’re always going to be trapped in your past.

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