Although a range of contemporary dance companies come intermittently to the Playhouse it seems a very long time indeed since a ballet company has performed there. Possibly the closest in recent years have been BalletBoyz and Michael Clark, but these groups however rooted in ballet technique have moved far away from classical tradition and the pointe shoe; arguably Richard Alston’s elegant lyricism has had a more balletic feel. So Ballet Black’s unabashed embrace of classical technique in chamber format came as a welcome and refreshing change to the Playhouse’s usual dance diet. Eight performers of diverse backgrounds and physical individuality come together as an ensemble in their generous and idealistic dancing, relishing ballet’s lyrical line and romantic feeling in movement, engaging the audience with their enthusiasm in a programme of three new works tailor made for the company.

Arthur Pita’s Crystaux opens the programme with a modern meditation on ballet at its most iconic. Inspired by Balanchine’s Le Palais de Crystal, later better known more austerely as Symphony in C, Pita explores the possibilities of balletic technique and convention through the metaphor of crystals that sparkle and refract light.  In mysterious darkness a hanging crystal pendant sends off rays of glimmering light; a cavalier in deepest blue lies sleeping on the stage, dreaming of an aloof ballerina in a glittering crystal encrusted tutu who floats past, her shimmering bourrées embellished with intricate gestural port de bras.  The cavalier awakens to partner her in a pas de deux whose fragmented structure echoes yet refracts classical conventions; the courteous partner, the poised ballerina, formality and etiquette, geometric lines, spirals and circles; against the shifting minimalism and tinkling glockenspiels of Steve Reich’s Drumming Part III.  Pita brings a fresh eye that makes us see ballet in a space age context; both quirky and powerful.  I wished that the steely strong Sayaka Ichikawa had looked out to the audience less, diluting the relationship with her attentive partner Jacob Wye, whose immersion in the midnight world of this piece contributed to its poetic depth.

In Christopher Marney’s To Begin, Begin a luminous floating sheet of blue silk undulates to conceal and reveal dancers as they form and reform in different groupings for a series of romantic duos and trios.  More familiar territory here, set to pleasant but bland music by Dustin O’Halloran; though danced with sincerity, a limited movement palette of flowing turns and arabesques and convoluted partnering could have done with more dynamic spice and differentiation.  Stand out moments were a vibrant intervention by Isabela Coracy, and joyous expansive dancing from the talented Mthuthuzeli November.

The evening closed with a narrative work, Storyville, reminiscent of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon as updated to the early 20th century.  Christopher Hampson has compiled a selection of songs and instrumental numbers by Kurt Weill to frame the story of a young girl caught up by a scheming madam Lulu White and the dangerous Mack in New Orleans; initially feted and glamorous, the exploited Nola gradually abandons the faithful sailor who loves her and heads on a path to self destruction through prostitution and drink.  Cira Robinson is a charismatic heroine, who dances with grace and passion even when bundled in an ungainly red lace housecoat; and the long lean Joshua Hariette and Sachaya Ichikawa make a sinister couple as Mack and Lulu. But I remain unconvinced by choreography which plumbs much the same decorative balletic shorthand as the pastel romance of To Begin, Begin despite its dark subject matter; cliché and superimposed facial expression expressing character and situation rather than embodiment through the dance material itself.  And do we need yet another ballet in which women are depicted as whores and victims to be endlessly manipulated both literally and metaphorically by men?

The best of Cassa Pancho’s enterprising company’s programme and its committed dancers demonstrate ballet’s ability to be both old and new; I look forward to seeing Ballet Black in Oxford again.

Susie Crow

16th June 2016