Music and dance, the heavenly partnership. Sometimes, the sound coming out of the orchestra pit is almost more important than the movement on the stage. Particularly in the case of Black Sabbath: the Ballet.
This unlikely notion was the genius idea of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s artistic director, Carlos Acosta, who decided to commission a ballet based on the songs of his adopted city’s most famous cultural export. The result – a glorious, engaging and warm-hearted mess – is already more or less sold out. By bringing two of Birmingham’s brightest artistic beacons together, it encourages a new audience to ballet. And, conversely, a new fanbase to Black Sabbath.
I belong to that number. I’d always written off the fathers of metal as late 70s headbangers whose copious consumption of drugs – “The cocaine bill was more than the recording bill. And the recording bill was $80,000,” lead singer Ozzy Osbourne tells us in deadpan voiceover – led to music of unrelenting obviousness.
The opposite is true. Listening to the early albums, they are strikingly original, with varied melodies threading through the driving riffs and fierce percussion. These qualities are emphasised in a score overseen by composer Christopher Austin, who also orchestrates the third act, with the first composed by Marko Nyberg and the second by Sun Keting. Something of the band’s propulsion is lost in the process, but the sound that emerges from the orchestra is rich, strange and beguiling.
Each act – the first celebrating the songs, the second the band and the third the fans – has a different choreographer, though all are designed with an eye for the arresting image (medallion lightboxes; a demon sculpture) by Alexandre Arrechea and smokily lit by KJ.
Raúl Reinoso brings massed ranks, jumps and arabesques punctuated by punchy arms to the first; lead choreographer Pontus Lidberg mixes up balletic formations, elegant partnering and full air-guitar mode in the last. In both, guitarist Marc Hayward is on stage, a focal point around which the dancers circle. In the second section, Cassi Abranches effectively catches the pulse of the music and the soul of the band, creating a vocabulary of low bends, little kicks and twitchy, weighted jumps to match the rhythm of the songs but also their spirit.
It is all danced with full-hearted commitment by the company. Yet their contained movements can’t quite match the electricity surging through the place when Black Sabbath’s co-founder Tony Iommi came on stage at the close for a one-off appearance, his guitar ringing out in Paranoid.
The music was also the star in Our Voices, English National Ballet’s ambitious first bill under their new director, Aaron Watkin. The ENB Philharmonic, conducted by Gavin Sutherland, produced gleaming accounts of Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite No 3 to accompany Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, of Stravinsky’s Les Noces (for Andrea Miller’s new version of the ballet) and of Strauss’s Four Last Songs for a David Dawson creation.
The singing, from the chorus of Opera Holland Park and four soloists in Les Noces, and from the soprano Madeleine Pierard in the Strauss, was thrilling. What we saw was more mixed. The company gave a spirited account of the Balanchine, but it feels unfamiliar to them; they danced with passion in Miller’s account of Les Noces, but its meaning is baffling. Four Last Songs was full of lovely lifts and sculpted poses, yet rarely gives its effects the chance to land or the music an opportunity to breathe.
Star ratings (out of five)
Black Sabbath: The Ballet ★★★★
Our Voices ★★★★
Black Sabbath: The Ballet tours to Theatre Royal Plymouth, 12-14 October, and Sadler’s Wells, London, 18-21 October