Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel sees Birmingham Royal Ballet's crowd-pleasing Black Sabbath Ballet
|Title||Black Sabbath Ballet|
|Company||Birmingham Royal Ballet|
|Venue||Sadler's Wells, London|
|Date||18 October 2023|
Audiences at Sadler's Wells were reminded that Black Sabbath invented heavy metal. Sold out on each of the six performances, Birmingham Royal Ballet's Black Sabbath: The Ballet, marked a “Brum-based” ballet-rock trilogy, new for 2023 and under the direction of Carlos Acosta and lead choreographer and artistic director, Swedish Pontus Lidberg. Acosta Danza's Raúl Reinoso, Brazillian Cassi Abranches who most recently became artistic director of Sao Paulo City Ballet, and Lidburg, choreographed each of the three acts of the evening-long ballet set to some of the iconic songs of Black Sabbath and orchestrations overseen by music supervisor Christopher Austin. The vast team of creatives reflects the sheer scale of the enterprise.
Essentially Black Sabbath: The Ballet is a crowd-pleaser. There is nothing wrong with art as entertainment. One gets a sense that the audience is awed not just by the technical prowess of the dancers, but also by the legendary (if not down to personal taste in) heavy metal music. Most ballets from the 19th century were crowd pleasers; they were entertainment for those who could afford tickets. BRB's new ballet was no different. On opening night, the sold-out performance of Black Sabbath: The Ballet was attended by those who were able to get their hands fast enough on digital tickets. I suspect many wanted to be entertained, and others curious as to how the two art forms were matched.
When ballet and other music forms (such as rock music) collide, the pendulum swings: it's either genius or not. BRB's newest production has got nothing on the edginess of Karole Armitage's Drastic Classicism (1981), where anarchy shifts into the choreographic structure. Nevertheless, Black Sabbath is almost as nuanced as Twyla Tharp's ‘popular' ballets to “period” music such as Jelly Roll Morton's music in Eight Jelly Rolls (1971) and Deuce Coupe (1973) set to The Beach Boys' compositions. I'm biased; for me it is a tall order to create something that resonates more than Armitage or Tharp's works. And while there is a hit-and-miss moment, BRB's feat is its choice of music, narratives and cultural histories, centered around Richard Thomas' dramaturgy, of the Birmingham-based 1970s music scene and nascent genre of heavy metal. Whether one is a fan of Black Sabbath's music or not, BRB's latest project has popular appeal, and that's largely to do with nostalgia.
The ballet spotlights the British sense of yearning for ‘good times gone by'; and given the world news over the last few weeks, moments of entertainment come as a relief, if not a guilty privilege. And if escapism is rife, the artistic curation of a three-act programme is a feat unto itself. Most companies recognise the sheer scale of this project. But at the heart of this production are the people: their stories, their aspirations and failures, and the pursuit of their art. Does the new production live up to its “alternative hype”? That, alas, left me wanting less of the orderliness of ballet, and more of the heavy rock renegade!
Relnoso's choreography for Act 1 is ultimately too safe. Much unison (it is effective when it works, but when moments are off it's just not effective). The predictable and much-used angularity in the upper body and other tame balletic features make the choreography under par, particularly as the ballet progresses shifts into rocking out. Finding the transitions between the codified vocabulary in ballet and ‘rocking out' could have been explored with more depth. These two extremes, as though never the twain shall meet, left me with an uncomfortably safe image of superb ballet dancers who superficially switch into ‘rock mode'. The highlight for Act 1 was the ‘Kissing duet' (this is my interpretation) performed by the exquisitely matched Yaoquian Shang and Javier Rojas. The (infamous) bats (after Ozzy Osbourne's antics) make an appearance, but they depart as soon as they arrive, transforming this rather bizarre moment into another beautifully crafted duet for a second couple, Beatrice Parma and Enrique Bejarano Vidal.
The second act, The Band, brought more sophistication. With voiceovers by some of the band members as well as former band manager Sharon Osborne, other narratives emerge: the poverty surrounding Birmingham, the four young men who decided to start a band in 1968, and their underprivileged, working-class background. Osbourne was told he would amount to nothing, while Tommy Iommi worked in a factory to support himself. Abranches' choreography brings the intense fluidity of the Brazillian company Gruppo Corpo, led by Rodrigo Perdeneiras. Overlay the narratives with the fluid movements and effortless lifts, Abranches' rhymical compositions saw six couples shift through the pulsating music. The duet for principals Céline Gittens and Tyrone Singleton was exquisite. Regan Hutsell shone in her edgy solo, amidst the wash of red across the stage. Her urban flair tackled the space as moved around and through the spoken text.
The final act, Everybody is a Fan, reminds us that Lidberg not only leaves the best until last, but also brings the entire work to a close in his signature manner. The choreography is erudite, and the company clearly enjoy the crescendo in the final stages of the work. The dancers return to the idea of ‘rocking out', but this is managed more effectively as Lidberg shaped and reshaped the formations and the group transitions. Gittens and Singleton come full circle to embody the intense fluidity of Lidberg's choreography. It is a shame that the metal car structure took up so much space (it was clear to see that Gittens was far too close to it in the group space, and her steps were somewhat retracted as she merged into the group).
The costumes, scenography and lighting complement the ideas of the creative team. However, it was the guest appearance of Toni Lommi on opening night made the audience (or rather the crowd) go crazy. I was surrounded by several audience members who, in the interval, openly admitted they were there for the music, not the ballet. When Iommi appeared on stage, I supposed I was at a rock concert. This was certainly a new experience for many of us seasoned Sadler's Wells goers. And it's always good to shake things up. For me, the revelation of principal dancer Lachlan Monaghan's singing was another highlight; he could easily step into the next jukebox musical on Black Sabbath. Now there is a new idea if any creative can capitalise on the idea!
With its limitations and sublime moments, this new production will secure audiences for a while to come. And, as my editor reminded me, companies these days certainly do need the income from newly created productions like Black Sabbath: The Ballet. If one is to make judgement on BRB's new ballet (and celebrate its achievements), I revert back to the audio in the third act: Black Sabbath: The Ballet… it's a Birmingham thing!
Dr Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel is a dance scholar, educator and published author. She is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dance (2003), the Universities of Durham and Surrey, and London Metropolitan University (2013). Her doctoral research focussed on Bronislava Nijinska's Les Noces (1923), and the re-imaginings by contemporary choreographers Angelin Preljocaj and Mauro Bigonzetti. Kathrina is a former director of the Society of Dance History Scholars (now Dance Studies Association). Her scholarship on ballet histories has been published in peer-reviewed anthologies and journals, as well as newspapers, high-end magazines, and online blogs. She has authored a book on the legacy of Nathalie Poutiatine and ballet in Malta (Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, 2020) and co-edited an extensive and pioneering anthology titled The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet (Oxford University Press, 2021).