Barack and Michelle Obama and their daughters were spotted at the ballet the other week – at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, where the Alvin Ailey troupe was visiting. In a city where every flicker of the presidential eyelid is scrutinised for glimmers of meaning, this casual thumbs-up for the arts registered like a barrage of cannon. What the local newspaper report I saw didn't mention, however, was that performers on stage were mostly African-American. Alvin Ailey has worked its way so far into the high-art mainstream for that fact to be unremarkable.
The picture is different in Britain, which is why Ballet Black came to be. Role models are as crucial to ballet as they are to football and athletics, and until young black Britons perceive classical dance as an option, nothing will change. Yes, the Royal has the dazzling Carlos Acosta and now the heroically built ex-Harlem and ABT soloist Eric Anderson, but where are the black, brown or even light-brown ballerinas?
That said, if Ballet Black didn't deliver the goods, it would be no more than an empty gesture. Remarkably, though, on the slenderest of means, this six-strong troupe puts many bigger ballet companies to shame in terms of fresh and lively repertoire. Impressively, all four pieces on its current bill are Ballet Black commissions – with the help of ROH2, a subsidiary creative wing of the Opera House – and all of them are strong.
Liam Scarlett's Hinterland, inspired by the punchy rhythms of Shosta-kovich's Piano Trio No 2, suffered most from the lack of live music (that's still a long way off in budgeting terms). But it was a neat and catchy opener, making the introductions, the three girls twirling wistfully through layers of dry ice, the three boys erupting in flex-heeled kick-jumps, showing off their muscle.
Pendulum, a duet from Martin Lawrance, was less predictable, not least because Lawrance made his name with Richard Alston in contemporary dance, and this was his first foray into ballet. And although he doesn't put the girl in point shoes, he's clearly fascinated by ballet's virtuoso possibilities – not least its whipping multiple turns (actually much harder to bring off in soft pumps). Beginning in sinister silence, the duet pits Cira Robinson and Hugo Cortes against one another, tracking the gradual shifts in Steve Reich's Pendulum Music (whose tuneless repetitions could have a second life as a form of mental torture) as each moves from competitive combat to a kind of peace.
Any other company would have let Robinson and Cortes put their feet up after that. Not so Ballet Black, which clearly feels it needs to make maximum impact on its single proper season of the year (theatre managements elsewhere being unaccountably slow to sign the company up).
Thus both remaining works of the evening use all six dancers full-on. Antonia Franceschi's Kinderszenen injects a note of prettiness, with cerise skirts and attractive piano music that nods to Schumann's suite. But it's a workout nonetheless, climaxing in a lattice of leaping male forms, and a girl flung high like a swingboat.
The considerable thrills in Will Tuckett's closer, Dépouillement, arise partly from his astute mimicking of the formal devices in Ravel's romping Sonata for Violin and Cello. But they also come from the marathon the dancers undergo. For unflagging energy and unstoppable spirit, Ballet Black is phenomenal.
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