As the crowds filed out of Sadler’s Wells theater on Friday, I approached a bushy-bearded man in a leather jacket and Black Sabbath T-shirt. Was he a die-hard aficionado of the heavy metal band? He was. What had he thought of the show we had just seen, “Black Sabbath: The Ballet”? “Fantastic!” he said, beaming. “But I’m also a big ballet fan. I was at ‘Don Quixote’ at the Royal Opera House last week.”
Bravo to London’s robust dance-going public, which has been packing houses at season openings in the last few weeks, culminating in the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s much talked-about Black Sabbath production. The improbable heavy-metal-meets-classical-dance premise came from the company’s director, Carlos Acosta, who has described the band, founded in Birmingham in 1968, as one of the city’s jewels.
Acosta was on to something. The show had its premiere in Birmingham in September, and tickets for that run and later performances in Plymouth and London sold out almost immediately.
The ballet doesn’t attempt a narrative about the band, which found fame with its self-titled debut album in 1970, and kept going through several decades of tours, drugs and bad behavior. Instead, each act offers a theme: the creation of the ballet; the band’s memories; fans and legacy.
The first act, “Heavy Metal Ballet,” choreographed by Raul Reinoso, has the dancers in black leotards and tights, moving through austere ballet sequences to some of the band’s best-known songs — “War Pigs,” “Solitude,” “Paranoid” — punctuated by the appearances of an onstage guitarist (Marc Hayward). In Act 2, “The Band,” Cassi Abranches’s more contemporary, off-pointe, grounded movement is overlaid by the voices of band members, reminiscing about the glory days. (“The cocaine bill was more than the recording bill.”)
For the final act, “Everybody Is a Fan,” Pontus Lidberg (credited as lead choreographer) employs an academic formality reminiscent of William Forsythe’s recent work to pop music. It all feels a bit same-y, although there is a fine, twisty, curving solo for Riku Ito, and a concert finale finish in front of a winged devil on an upturned metal car.
If each section is enjoyable enough, the overall effect is curiously generic — all dry ice, dramatic lighting (by K.J.) and pumping motion. What’s missing is the raw, provocative tension and originality of Black Sabbath’s music.
THE LONDON SEASON STARTED at the end of September with English National Ballet presenting its first program under the leadership of Aaron Watkin, the Canadian director who succeeded Tamara Rojo, who departed for the San Francisco Ballet last year.
Watkin arrives after 17 years as the artistic director of the Semperoper Ballett in Dresden, where he programmed a mix of new work, contemporary ballet and traditional 19th-century pieces. His opening triple bill for English National Ballet suggested his tastes, with Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations”; a new “Les Noces” from Andrea Miller; and “Four Last Songs” from David Dawson, a British choreographer championed by Watkin in Dresden.
It was an ambitious start and a musical treat, with a full orchestra, 36 singers from the Opera Holland Park Chorus for Stravinsky’s “Noces,” and the marvelous soprano Madeleine Pierard performing Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.” It was also a commendable stretch for the dancers, who had to move from Balanchine’s sparkling essay in grand classicism to Miller’s contemporary, grounded urgency, and then to Dawson’s punishingly hard, balletic extremes.
It wasn’t all successful. “Theme,” famous for its technical difficulty, was what the French call “correct” without being dynamically or musically exciting. Sangeun Lee and Gareth Haw, making their debuts in the lead roles, got through the steps but looked tentative rather than commanding.
Miller’s “Les Noces,” commissioned by Rojo to commemorate the centenary of the original “Les Noces” by Bronislava Nijinska, was simply puzzling. I had no idea what was going on as the dancers rushed around, enveloping one another with lengths of fabric, looking very anxious. Only later, after reading the program notes, did I discover that Miller had completely departed from the original story of an arranged peasant wedding to a “Rite of Spring” sequel involving a community debate about whether the sacrifice of a Chosen One was a good idea. Clearly not, but then neither was this concept despite the impressively decayed-looking set by the sculptor Phyllida Barlow, who died earlier this year.
“Four Last Songs” was more successful, featuring 12 dancers in flesh-tone body tights, in constant swooping, circling, flying motion beneath images of clouds, their limbs always extending dynamically into space. Dawson is a fine craftsman, good at pas de deux full of hair-raisingly difficult and beautiful lifts, but the piece felt monotonous after a while, with no perceptible emotional connection to Strauss’s music and its contemplation of mortality.
Even if these individual works had flaws, the program was an energized, strong start for Watkin and the dancers that bodes well for English National Ballet.
A few nights later came the opening of the Royal Ballet season, featuring a much safer bet: Acosta’s production of “Don Quixote,” with Vadim Muntagirov and the company’s senior ballerina, Marianela Nunez, in the leading roles.
I didn’t expect to be excited by this campy war horse of a ballet, with its broad-stroke narrative and slapstick comedy. But I was. The dancers tackle Acosta’s production with far more gusto than they displayed when it debuted in 2013, inhabiting the storybook décor with charm, vigor and the nuanced crowd-scene acting that the Royal is particularly good at.
And Nunez, who can be annoyingly grand-ballerina in manner, was sensational as a sexy, flirty Kitri, uninhibitedly enjoying herself in effortless balances and head-kicking jetés. Muntagirov, boyishly charming, is a bit too elegant for the rough and ready Basilio, but I’ll take it.
Beyond these big-ticket shows, Pam Tanowitz showed her beautiful “Song of Songs” at the Barbican, and the Dance Umbrella festival filled smaller spaces with emerging choreographers. Those audiences were smaller, but no less rapt.