Ballet Black: Heroes, Festival Theatre Edinburgh, Review

Rating (out of 5)
The finale from The Waiting Game - Ballet Black
Show details
Ballet Black
If At First: Sophie Laplane (choreographer), David Plater (lighting), Jessica Cabassa (costume design).
The Waiting Game: Mthuthuzeli November (choreographer), Mthuthuzeli November and Alex Wilson (music), David Plater (lighting), Peter Todd (costume design), Richard Bolton and Phil Cristodolou (door design)
Acaoã de Castro, Megan Chiu, Isabela Coracy, Taraja Hudson, Love Kotiya, Bhungane Mehlomakulu, Helga Paris-Morales, Elijah Peterkin, Ebony Thomas
Running time

Founded in 2001 by Cassa Pancho, Ballet Black was established with a powerful motto,‘Change Not Trend’ to showcase individuality and diversity on stage and this dynamic dance company is currently touring the UK with a new double bill, entitled HEROES. 

The Franco-British choreographer Sophie Laplane, presents If at First which explores complex themes of humanity and the concept of heroism today. The piece was inspired by the Jean-Michel Basquiat’s series of paintings, Eroica and the Eroica Symphony by Beethoven.  Basquiat’s Eroica I (1988) depicts frenzied, stream-of-consciousness imagery illustrating the fundamental tragedy of the human condition. In 1987, he was profoundly upset over the death of friend Andy Warhol and with the repeated phrase, Man Dies, the painting reflects his tortured state of mind. 

If At First begins with a Crown is spotlit, as one dancer, Isabela Coracy stands tall to stretch up to reach it, while the ensemble gathers round this Queenly figure, as each attempt to fight for possession of this majestic symbol of power.  Like a playful game, they skip and run across the stage, chasing each other in a playground game of tig, then a more forceful fight struggling to gain control.  Sequences from Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 (Allegro and Funeral March) is part of an eclectic soundtrack of classic and contemporary music with a constant shift in tempo and rhythm; the dancers, wearing white mesh T shirts and shorts, show off their long, lithe limbs, outstretched arms and supple spinal bends with athletic grace.   

Through ritualistic circles, the crown is passed around and at one point magically appears out of thin air; theatricality is enhanced by circular mirrors to reflect light and shadow with flickering silhouettes.  In Princely mode, Acaoã de Castro proudly takes the crown to parade around with ceremonial panache, until the fragile papier mâché toy crumbles to dust in his hands. A sorrowful, elegiac piece, ‘Mother & Son’, by the renowned Scottish composer Tom Harrold, accompanies a graceful duet between Love Kotiya and Helga Parts-Morales which seems to follow life’s journey from innocent child to the maturity of adulthood.

Another outstanding duet is danced to the foot tapping beat of Michelle Gurevich’s I’ll Be Your Woman, from the album Party Girl. ‘I'll be the mirror where you are a queen, Your fellow magician of the waking dream’.  

The complex meaning of Basquiat's naïve art is hard to understand but as Johnny Depp observed, "However crude the image may be, every line, mark, scratch, drip, fingerprint, word and imperfection is there because he allowed it to be there."  Likewise If At First, with the mish mash of music and short vignettes, it’s not easy to follow any narrative; however, through the vocabulary of dance, Laplane creates her own emotional, chaotic dramatisation of Eroica to express the fragility, strength and heroic nature of the human spirit. 

First staged in 2020, The Waiting Game by Mthuthuzeli November, has been revised for this new production, the title echoing Samuel Becket’s existential play, Waiting for Godot, which led the choreographer to explore his own philosophical questions. If life is a game, are we the players or the spectators. Do we know the rules? 

In Becket’s play, the characters represent humanity, the setting represents human existence, and words and actions demonstrate larger truths about the human condition.  As a modern day Vladimir, who is trying to make sense of the world, in The Waiting Room, Ebony Thomas plays a man disillusioned with life.  He lumbers about, shoulders hunched in an oversized coat, trapped in his own mental anguish; he hears voices in his head which are played in a literary recording to relate his private, oppressive thoughts on the pointlessness of his existence. 

The key focus on stage is a large door within a three-sided light box on wheels which revolves around the stage, as the ensemble of dancers gather around The Man, enticing him to step through the door to the other side. It’s like the time-travelling Tardis, a portal to another universe.  November worked with Ballet Black dancers to allow them to collaborate in the choreography to explore the absurdism of existence and passing of the time through movement. The uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring; how thoughts can change rapidly, confusing us. Is time just a constant reminder that there will be a tomorrow?

Adding to the dramatic ambience, the dancers recorded the Man’s voices in his head and scrambled distorted thoughts, which mingle with the music. Dressed in loose white floaty shirts, the ensemble perfect the fluid, seamless, synchronised movement as placards denote the passing of time, ‘This is your 5 Minute Call.’ 

The dark mood gradually lightens when a sign indicates, "A long time later," and the dancers appear in sparkling silver jackets like the chorus line of a glitzy Broadway musical.  Now changed into a gold sequin jacket, The Man joins in a vivacious, jazzy show stopper finale to celebrate his renewed sense of freedom, the joy of life and living. 

To assist the audience to follow the theatrical characterisation in each dance, it would be helpful to have the cast list and plotline synopsis in the programme.  Quibble aside, this is cleverly curated double bill and most interesting that the choreographers were inspired by an artist, composer and dramatist – Basquiat, Beethoven and Becket - to share similar existential, philosophical themes with intellectual vision and a final message of hope. 

 ‘Let us not waste our time in idle discourse. Let us do something while we have the chance,  before it’s too late.’  from 'Waiting for Godot' by Samuel Becket.

Show Times: 

This performance took place on 18th June, 2024. 

The date was exactly 30 years since the glamorously designed Festival Theatre first opened on 18th June, 1994, with a gala Variety show, Meet Me at the Empire.   Happy Birthday!

Tour dates: