Ballet Black, Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House


Ballet Black, the award-winning company founded to provide role models for black and Asian ballet dancers, is now 12 years old. It has established its own identity, which is as much about new work as it is about the colour of the dancers’ skin. It’s a small, sparky company with plenty of ambition and swagger.

The new mixed bill continues Ballet Black’s move into narrative dance. War Letters, created by Christopher Marney, is a stylised story ballet, exploring a situation rather than a plot. Kwame Kwei Armah, in voiceover, reads a real letter from a soldier to his sweetheart, introducing a ballet of wartime longing and brief meetings.

Marney, best known as a dancer with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, has a deft touch in setting up scenes and relationships. A group of soldiers stand on guard as one sleeps and dreams; couples meet and flirt at a dancehall. The music is a mix of perky Shostakovich and Glenn Miller. Marney uses clean classical vocabulary, with touches of waltz, swing and conga for his dancehall scenes.

Marney sometimes lays it on too thick, giving his ballet a long sentimental climax. Other scenes are taut and touching. Thandie Newton reads Vicki Feaver’s poem Coat for a dance where Sayaka Ichikawa struggles with relationships and loss. She sometimes feels smothered as she dances with her partner, who keeps her wrapped up in his heavy coat, but she’s left cold and alone when he dies. War Letters is strongest when it looks at mixed feelings. Cira Robinson dances with her wounded lover, Jazmon Voss, who can’t always respond. They’re trapped in different worlds.

The programme starts with short, plotless works. Robert Binet’s Egal sets up Robinson and Jacob Wye as a precisely matched pair, pushing against each other in neat tick tock steps. It’s smoothly danced but needs more bite.

Ludovic Ondiviela’s Dopamine (you make my levels go silly) is more fun. Ichikawa and Voss are besotted, switching from big academic steps to goofy wriggles. Endearingly, they use both to express the giddiness of love: Voss suddenly soars in a classical jump, while Ichikawa shuffles her feet in happy embarrassment.

The One Played Twice, by big name choreographer Javier De Frutos, is set to a barbershop recording of Hawaiian songs, from traditional hulas to 1950s novelty numbers. De Frutos gives Ballet Black’s dancers juicy, weighted steps with flirty details. The company look sleek and clear throughout.

Until 6 March, then touring. Box office 020 7304 4000. Tour dates from