Graham Watts sees United We Dance International's Black Beauty
|United We Dance International
|Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler's Wells, London
|9 July 2023
I approached this performance with a certain trepidation. United We Dance International is a new ensemble with a multi-national cast of largely pre-professional dancers, aged from 16 upwards. Not only are they unpaid but their expenses were only met once they arrived in the UK. Despite obvious reservations about a cast that has had to contribute to the cost of their performance, the rather ecstatic curtain call evidenced a palpable sense of joy and achievement amongst the 19 dancers (two, from Nigeria, were refused visas by the Home Office and thus unable to be present).
United We Dance International is the joint, transatlantic brainchild of Andrea Kramer (USA) and Anna Morgan (UK), dance educators and choreographers who met ten years ago and shared a passion for dance tempered by certain frustrations (uppermost amongst which were the lack of women leaders and racial diversity and a distaste of body fascism in dance, together with a shared view that everyone should have the opportunity to dance, whatever their socio-economic circumstances). This, their first project, was conceived in 2019 but necessarily put on hold when covid made international travel impossible.
Revisiting the project was only made possible by a partially successful crowdfunding campaign, which began with a target of £70K but had raised only £42K, £3,000 short of their downgraded target, by the time of this performance. One can only wonder what was sacrificed to meet the needs of this reduced income.
My trepidation turned out to be misplaced since this premiere of Black Beauty was delivered with a slick professionalism that belied both the amateur cast and that reduced budget. A straightforward, no-nonsense narrative was sufficiently lean to require no prompting from programme notes (themselves, mercifully brief) and the bespoke musical score by Conrad Korsch (bassist with Rod Stewart from 2002 to 2018) was a revelation. Remarkably diverse and descriptive with robust, rhythmic flair in the repeated opening and closing ensemble number, Wild Horses, which had the man next to me dancing in his seat, and tuneful, lyrical passages for gentler scenes, including the main pas de deux. What made the necessarily recorded score even more remarkable is that Korsch performed every instrument: truly a one-man orchestra. My favourite new ballet score of the 21st Century is The Pet Shop Boys' The Most Incredible Thing and Roger O'Donnell (keyboard player for The Cure) has also composed for ballet. Korsch is another to join this elite club.
Black Beauty was essentially two performances rolled into one, since the danced sequences were regularly punctuated by impressive dramatic monologues and spoken poetry, written and performed by Acken Taylor (they/them). Credited as the narrator, Taylor sometimes took to the stage from the front row of the audience with storytelling that was occasionally reminiscent of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. These were impressive performances, but I often struggled to comprehend the relevance to the Black Beauty narrative. Just prior to the harrowing scenes of Black Beauty (a horse, in case the reader is unaware of Anna Sewell's 1877 novel of that name) being passed around from abusive owner-to-owner, ending up broken by the wayside, Taylor gave a comedic monologue about what to do with lemons (make lemonade, of course)!
Taylor's direct involvement worked best in the final scene of the first act, where they acted as the auctioneer in the first of the Black Beauty auctions, excitedly ratcheting up the price with the Victorian-themed bidders standing in the aisles. There were regular breaches of the fourth wall, which Taylor exploited with comedic effect. The second act opened with the Blacksmith (Leslie Merced) forging a horseshoe and with the house lights still up, Taylor turned to a woman seated behind her and started an ordinary conversation about how nice her shoes were before arriving at the punchline of “imagine if they were permanently fixed to your feet.”
Of the 19 dance performers, 7 came from mainland USA and 6 more from Puerto Rico. 5 from Europe (including Calum Cameron from the UK) and one (Divieta Sahajwala) came all the way from India. Only three identified as male. One of the Puerto Rican men, Alexis Cruz (21) performed the title role with outstanding stage presence – reminiscent of a young Carlos Acosta; his strong jumps all accentuated by appropriate equine characteristics.
The group movement was impressively choreographed and there was a lyrical pas de deux for Denis Cabrol and Sahajwala (as Squire Gordon and his wife). Since the wife was dying at the time, one needed some artistic licence to overlook her energy in the duet: both dancers were excellent throughout. Inevitably, with a group that ranged from teenaged students to professional dancers in their 20s, there was mixed ability, but isn't that the case in any company. Kramer and Morgan cast according to strengths and the whole ensemble pulled together excellently in a hybrid dance style that was balletic (although mostly performed in bare feet) and contemporary with accents of commercial, jazz, hip-hop and African fusion.
The performance was prefaced by a brief film that introduced the dancers and cogently explained the principles and process of the project; and despite those initial reservations, I left the Lilian Baylis Theatre with a realisation that these young people had enjoyed an uplifting mutual experience that may help to set them on the course of a professional dance career. And all's well with that! Hopefully, United We Dance International is not a one-project wonder and I wish them well with future fundraising.
Graham Watts is a freelance writer and dance critic. He writes for The Spectator, Tanz, Shinshokan Dance Magazine (Japan), Ballet Magazine (Romania), BachTrack and the Hong Kong International Arts Festival and has previously written for the Sunday Express, Dancing Times, Dance Europe, DanceTabs, London Dance, the Edinburgh International Festival and Pointe magazine (USA). He has also written the biography of Daria Klimentová (The Agony and the Ecstasy) and contributed chapters about the work of Akram Khan to the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet and on Shobana Jeyasingh for the third edition of Routledge's Fifty Contemporary Choreographers.
He is Chairman of the Dance Section of The Critics' Circle and of the UK National Dance Awards and regularly lectures on dance writing and criticism at The Royal Academy of Dance, The Place and (until the war) for Balletristic in Kyiv. He was a nominee for the Dance Writing Award in the 2018 One Dance UK Awards and was appointed OBE in 2008.