What on earth does a Black Sabbath ballet look like? It was hard to imagine when Birmingham Royal Ballet director Carlos Acosta announced the project, part of his mission to plant Brummie culture at the heart of BRB. But it is an inspired idea as Sabbath’s music is full of drama.
The concept is not to tell the band’s story, although there are voiceovers from its members and Sharon Osbourne. These include the tale of guitarist Tony Iommi losing the tips of his fingers in a sheet metal factory accident, and the nugget that the band’s cocaine bill was more than one album’s recording bill (and that was £80,000).
The show takes looser inspiration, based mostly in the present (dancers in leotards, band T-shirts and only a bit of 70s denim) and built around some of the best-known songs such as War Pigs, Paranoid and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. Powerful riffs, inspiringly orchestrated by Christopher Austin and team, are sewn into a larger soundtrack. Strings and brass encroach on the guitars, fracturing the songs and threatening a brooding cacophony – paranoid, indeed. Sometimes a melody is pulled out: Iron Man turned into a ballad while two dancers are locked in an endless kiss, dancing lip-to-lip. Guitarist Marc Hayward plays live on stage, although the way the sound is mixed, it doesn’t have the full-blast impact it should.
The three acts each have a different choreographer. You’ve got to love Acosta’s dedication to showcasing global, lesser known talent: Cuban Raúl Reinoso, Brazilian Cassi Abranches and Swede Pontus Lidberg. Reinoso’s opening act answers one question about a rock ballet: will there be air guitar? Alas, yes. He tries to capture the energy of the songs but ballet dancers just can’t lose their composure enough to truly rock out.
Abranches has a more spare, contemporary style, something leaden (in a good way) about the weight of bodies, even as limbs fly. Lidberg brings us back to a more classical, high energy feel. What works well is the path trodden previously by choreographer William Forsythe, using very academic ballet steps in exact unison as a sharp contrast to pop music. We get some of that here, like a finale solo of tight jumps and beats, bang in time with the music. But the messy unison of the first act loses dynamism.
There are great ideas and surprises: a silken solo in the third act for Riku Ito, completely in tune with Hayward’s guitar lines; dancers all in black, faces covered, who appear like shadow selves; a giant metal car with the band’s iconic winged devil on top; male dancer Tzu-Chao Chou performing on pointe; principal Lachlan Monaghan singing as well as dancing (and doing it very well). Elsewhere the dance is at odds with what we see: when a voiceover tells of trashing hotel rooms, Tyrone Singleton and Céline Gittens perform a quiet pas de deux of earnest ardour.
This show is utterly unique and absolutely worth seeing but throughout you can’t help but want more: more power, more volume, more theatre. That doesn’t have to mean bigger jumps and turns, it’s about harnessing the might of the music. When Iommi comes out, guitar raging, in a one-off special appearance for the finale, the place explodes. It is the energy we’ve all been waiting for.