‘It’s not exactly Swan Lake, is it?’: inside the making of the Black Sabbath ballet

Extraordinary new dance show: Sofia Liñares in Black Sabbath: The Ballet
Extraordinary new dance show: Sofia Liñares in Black Sabbath: The Ballet

The very notion of Black Sabbath: The Ballet has something ludicrous about it, the fierce lowbrow attack of heavy metal’s original rock demons crashing into the high cultural grace and precision of classical choreography. Yet here we are at the rehearsal studios of the Royal Birmingham Ballet, where Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi is watching lithe dancers in pointe shoes execute arabesques to an orchestral rendition of Sabbath’s 1970 apocalyptic anthem Iron Man. “It’s not Swan Lake, is it?” he says, with brusque Brummie humour.

“I’ve never been to a ballet in my life,” the 75-year-old rock star admits. “But Sabbath never closed ourselves to other music. If you want to make something original, you’ve got to do things outside of the box.
And this is right out of the box!”

Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg stands with poised authority on the edge of a demarcated dance floor, issuing suggestions. “I sense a bit of confusion,” he says, as 19 dancers in tight gym clothes converge around one of their number, lifting her up and passing her overhead in what looks like the world’s most polite stage dive. “It needs to be more wild, more fun,” urges Lidberg.

It all started with the great former Royal Ballet star Carlos Acosta, now director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, who wanted to create something that reflected the city. “He said, ‘What could be more Birmingham than Black Sabbath?’” says Iommi. All the members of Black Sabbath grew up in post-war Birmingham, “playing in craters” left from bombing, working in heavy industry, and learning their craft on the local blues scene. Iommi famously lost the tips of two fingers in a sheet-metal factory, fitting homemade thimbles to his injured fingers, and detuning his guitar to slacken strings and make them easier to bend.

In there, lies the origins of Sabbath’s low-slung, heavy sound. With Ozzy Osbourne’s powerful voice and increasingly deranged stage persona, bassist and lyricist Geezer Butler’s fascination with horror movies and Bill Ward’s expressive, percussive playing, Sabbath launched a whole new genre of rock music with their self-titled debut album in 1970. “When we started, there was no template for heavy metal,” Iommi points out. “We didn’t even call it that. We liked blues, jazz, dramatic horror movie scores, even a bit of classical, Holst’s Mars, when it gets really dum-diddly-dum, I love all of that.”

What they didn’t get was much respect. “Birmingham didn’t want to know us,” says Iommi. “We got slammed by the press. In America, they called us satanists. Nobody understood what we were doing, because it was so different.”

Times have changed. The group (who disbanded in 2017, after a final album and farewell tour) are widely revered as all-time great musical pioneers. In Birmingham, there is a Black Sabbath canal bridge and a tram named Ozzy. Iommi and Osbourne united to perform as the closing act at the Commonwealth Games in 2022.

“I didn’t think that was going to happen. Ozzy was in and out of hospital (coping with Parkinson’s), I was sick, we had already told the organisers we couldn’t do it. Then Ozzy got in touch a week before: ‘I’m coming over! Put a band together!’ I was like, ‘bloody hell!’ Geezer couldn’t do it cos he’d got Covid. All the bass players I knew were dead. It was all a bit of a panic. We rehearsed in the afternoon, and that was it. But I’m glad we did it. We’ve played Paranoid enough times. It seemed to go down well.”

Composer and conductor Chris Austin has worked across classical and popular genres, and seems to have particularly relished this challenge. “There’s a grandeur about the Sabbath songs anyway. And there’s also rawness and irregularity there. It’s unbiddable music. The structures of the songs are amazing.” Working with Lidberg and a large team at BRB, he honed in on eight songs and started working out complex orchestrations. “You have to really get inside the material – there’s so much going on under the bonnet. You disassemble the sound and think about what each component is.”

Carlos Acosta and Sofia Liñares in Black Sabbath: The Ballet
Carlos Acosta and Sofia Liñares in Black Sabbath: The Ballet

A major challenge was capturing the essence of Osbourne’s vocals. “Ozzy’s voice is an amazing instrument in terms of its total authority of execution, from low to really high range, with no audible transitions. I mean, it’s an animalistic, original sound, up there with the great voices of the century. If you just took the same notes and played them on a piano, they wouldn’t have the same intensity,” says Austin.

“If you put those same frequencies on a soprano, you’d have to go a whole octave higher to have the same height and power. So technically speaking, it’s about understanding registration. You might try getting all your double basses to play super high where you don’t normally hear them, or all your piccolos playing super low, because it’s another way of replicating the idea, which is literally vocal cords, diaphragm, everything that’s creating the sound.”

All Black Sabbath members have endorsed the ballet, and though Ozzy’s illness has made it difficult for him to continue performing or even speak clearly, his wife, Sharon, has been interviewed to help narrate the story of the band. Ozzy’s original recorded vocals will be heard at points during the performance, and, unusually for a ballet, the dancers are also expected to join in. “I need more volume! This is why you’ve had singing lessons,” Lidberg tells his troupe, as they pirouette and suddenly bellow en masse, from Iron Man: “Has he lost his mind?”

“It’s a very ambitious project,” says Lidberg. “In a broad sense, ballet – like heavy metal – is known for its clichés, but
you can dance to anything in different ways.”

'Ozzy's voice is an amazing instrument'
'Ozzy's voice is an amazing instrument' - Redferns

A big challenge has been responding as a choreographer to the driving, repetitive riffs that underpin Sabbath’s oeuvre. “There’s a very particular energy level that doesn’t have a lot of peaks and valleys, and that’s quite hard to choreograph. Ballet dancers need a lot of texture, a lot of range and differences. So I’m trying to make layers, even if the music repeats pretty much exactly, I add a counterpoint, and then add another.” 

He has incorporated three distinctive movements associated with heavy metal: headbanging, air guitar and the mosh pit, although he concedes “the mosh pit is maybe less wild than it would be in reality”. He doesn’t anticipate it spilling into the aisles, but Lidberg is clearly thrilled at the idea of cultures clashing. “Who is to say which is high and which is low culture? In my opinion, there is nothing particularly highbrow about a ballet company performing Swan Lake, because it really caters to the clichés of what ballet is. So that’s quite lowbrow, really.”

“Unusually for a totally brand-new evening-length ballet, you’ve got a score that is simultaneously new and also familiar to millions of people,” Austin adds.

“And that is a gift. If a Black Sabbath audience felt they could sing along in a ballet theatre, that would be the greatest compliment. Though I’m not sure our regular ballet goers would feel the same.”

“I’ve said to Carlos, look, if our fans come, there might be shouting and standing up and singing,” says Iommi. “And he went ‘Oh great!’ But who knows? If they’re the original fans, they’ll be 75 or 80 now. So they might like a chance to sit down at the ballet!”


Black Sabbath: The Ballet’is at Birmingham Hippodrome, from Sept 23-30; Theatre Royal Plymouth, Oct 12-14 and Sadler’s Wells, London, Oct 18-21. All tickets (returns only): brb.org.uk