Hell, Barbican Theatre, London <br/> Ballet Black, Linbury Studio Theatre London

Torments of the damned
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The Independent Culture

'I want to know what this is about," burst an angry male voice from the stalls. "I paid good money for my ticket and I have a right to know what they think they're doing, and no, don't think you can throw me out!"

As a distraction, the minor scuffle between the unhappy patron and the heavy-handed Barbican usher was welcome. 40 minutes into the deep ennui of Emio Greco and Pieter C Scholten's Hell (part of the Barbican's normally reliable Bite season), you longed for something to happen - anything, really. But even this admirable public militancy turned out to be a set-up. A friend who saw the show when it premiered in France last year remembers an identical incident. Depressing, isn't it, to think of artists anticipating incomprehension as a response to their work? This bunch have other bases covered too.

They specifically reject dance "as a medium for conveying, or for dressing a theatrical space". What's left, then, is dull and ugly - intentionally so. Inspired, so the programme says, by Dante's Inferno, and historic notions of Hell in the visual arts, the piece begins with seven dancers, dressed in monks' habits, vogueing in unison to thumping disco and a light show. Later, they change into other clothes, take everything off, don each other's things. Minutes go by as they puff on cigarettes in the dark, while a nemesis in a ludicrous black wig prowls round them.

In dance, as so often in other disciplines, once the word "deconstruction" starts being bandied about, pretty much anything goes. Here, it's a mad mismatch of styles: synchronised storming about, arm-whirling and stamping. There is ballet, a spot of tango, and long bouts of DTs, all part of "the inherent logic of the body" says Greco, though he doesn't explain how a process that's organic can happen in unison to seven people.

The evening perks up somewhat when the performers remove all their clothes, if only because one becomes mesmerised by the dangly differences between one body and another. Yet, prolonged, this full-on nudity achieves something rather grand. Bathed in golden light, empowered by a high-volume blast of the opening of Beethoven's Fifth (and this is not a joke), the dancers begin to appear as brave ciphers of human struggle. By the final cadence the effect is verging on ecstatic, and almost worth the wait.

If Greco had left it there, with Beethoven's rhetoric ringing in our ears, I could have gone home happy. As it was, I made the mistake of reading the show's accompanying magazine, Hell, whose content would keep Pseuds Corner in copy for the next 100 years.

What Ballet Black might have done with the kind of budget enjoyed by Greco and his continental chums must remain the stuff of dreams. The company was set up in 2001 by ballet enthusiast Cassa Pancho and funded by her job as a receptionist. Why were there so few black and Asian dancers in British ballet, she wanted to know? Not receiving any answers, she did something about it.

Ballet Black's second showing at the Linbury Studio, under the banner of ROH2, Covent Garden's alternative programme, well and truly buries the sly old arguments about the black physique not being "adapted" to classical dance. The sight of gorgeous Monica Stephenson strutting her Balanchine style in a tiny white bikini, or tall Damien Johnson streaking out in a series of diagonal jumps of radiant poise and finish - leaves such qualms looking quite absurd.

But the very fact that Ballet Black had to look to America and Brazil to fill three of its six places suggests a need for a cultural shift here in Britain. Only when black parents and kids see ballet as a valid pursuit will the situation change, and for the moment, that justifies Ballet Black.

There is not a weak moment here. Raymond Chai and young Royal Ballet protégé Liam Scarlett supply neat and polished works. Umdlalo kaSisi, by Zimbabwe-born Bawren Tavaziva, melds the classical aesthetic to the spiritual rapture of South Africa with surprising success. But the hit was Antonia Francheschi's Shift, Trip ...Catch, a sassy, Big Apple-style blast whose helter-skelter jazz score by Zoe Martlew - who also played cello on stage - set a pace that nearly set the floor on fire. All strength to Ballet Black and its mission. May the world not need it for long.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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