Magazine article The Spectator

Dance: Ballet Black: Triple Bill

Magazine article The Spectator

Dance: Ballet Black: Triple Bill

Article excerpt

Ballet's romantic mantra could be summed up by John Keats's ballad 'La Belle Dame sans Merci', in which a young man remembers his terrible encounter with a supernatural 'fairy's child'. Beguiled to sleep with this ravishing fantasy creature, he dreams of a ghostly corps of other chaps similarly beguiled, who warn him that she was a witch who would leave him forever haunted, sick and bereft.

You can remodel this fantasy this way and that, switch the genders, reconfigure death, sleep and hallucination, and come up with Giselle , La Sylphide , Swan Lake , La Bayadère in the 19th century, and then find Fokine, Balanchine and Ashton developing it into the 20th in Les Sylphides , Symphony in C and Ondine . Then the ballet world wakes up to emotional realism and superrational digitalism, attended by kulcha-media denunciation of classical ballet conventions as sexist, racist and old-fashioned.

So nothing could have more in-yer-face impact than the resurrection of la belle dame by the hip Arthur Pita in his brilliant little pas de deux, Cristaux , for Ballet Black.

With his Portuguese soul, Pita is unashamed of mystery and magic and can create grand emotional deception with tiny forces, as I regularly seem to say. Here was the romantic trope just as Keats prescribed: the boy feverishly dreaming of a supernatural lovely decked out blindingly in a white tutu sprayed with sequins, to the hypnotic tinkling bells of part three of Steve Reich's Drumming .

The faerie's hovering bourrées come straight from the lexicon of phantoms and dying swans. One moment she is stiffly compliant in his arms, the next the pair are quickstepping intimately, and then, suddenly, she switches on the menace. He has the goofy soft face of a dreamer half the time, never looking at her, just imagining her. The piece seemed to me to hit, in miniature, every important base in romantic ballet and modern sexual scepticism.

Did I mention that the dancers, Cira Robinson and Mthuthuzeli November, are black? I should. The company exists, number one, to hire black or Asian ballet dancers, which complicates criticising it.

In Cristaux , does the fact that the dreaming knight and his belle dame are not white-skinned make a difference to it as a work of art? Definitely. Robinson's stony ebony face and muscular black limbs in all that crystal white make a contrast and fusion of supposed opposites as iconic as a black Santeria Madonna.

And without the presumption of prejudice that a black woman in a white tutu is odd, and without Robinson's charismatic incarnation of a merciless belle dame, the work would lose both its contemporary challenge and its bold homage to the romantic origins of classical ballet. …

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