Pancho, who is mixed race, founded Ballet Black in 2001, soon after writing a dissertation on the paucity of Black women in British ballet. Since then, the company has commissioned more than 50 ballets by 37 choreographers and built an admiring public.
But not without obstacles, as Pancho’s work, “Say It Loud,” makes clear. It’s a biographical account of the company’s history in seven sections, to a soundtrack that includes Steve Reich, the grime rapper Flowdan, the calypso singer Lord Kitchener and voice-overs (“What’s the point of Ballet Black?” “Can we talk to a dancer who has experienced racism?”). The choreography is entirely forgettable but enjoyably showcased the dancers as distinct personalities, switching between fervent classicism, ironic shimmying with feathered fans and more a contemporary, grounded physicality.
Maqoma’s “Black Sun” is far more ambitious, merging classical and contemporary, past and present to suggest the intense struggle and rewards of being connected to a bodily ancestral memory, both personal and collective. Set to a thrumming, complex score by Michael Asante, known as Mikey J, “Black Sun” begins in ballet mode, with women purring across the stage on pointe and a pas de deux with William Forsythe-esque push-pull dynamics. But this is the least interesting part of the piece, which soon gives way to more grounded, pointe-shoe-free movement, the dancers slowly succumbing to a more internally propelled dance, their bodies shaking and convulsing, shoulders and necks angling, faces pulled into grimaces.
Toward the end, the immensely talented Mthuthuzeli November, who is also South African, drums and sings with great power, jumping and skittering in one spot, as the dancers respond, physically and vocally, to his invocation.
It’s a bit “Rite of Spring,” but there is no sacrifice, just a sense of communal immersion in something powerful, and an enormous commitment from dancers who have dared to reveal themselves onstage.