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United We Dance International presents Black Beauty

Watching a video before the performance about the performance felt a bit like reading the blurb next to a painting before viewing the actual painting. Still, it provided some useful context, not so much in the lightning speed introductions of the entire company, which consisted of a quick fire round of “Hi, my name is X and I’m from Y” without so much as a single interesting fact about themselves between them, but rather in the creative process. An international (but not, I venture to add, global) venture, putting this show together was neither easy nor cheap, and so United We Dance took to crowdfunding, with significant success. At the time of writing, however, they still haven’t quite broken even, and they were also two dancers down. Laura Aitonje and Asua Monica Msen, both from Nigeria, were not granted visas to enter the UK by the Home Office – make of that what you will.

Black Beauty - Photographer Hope VanCleaf .
Black Beauty – Photographer Hope VanCleaf .

The dance routines were all undoubtedly linked to the story of Black Beauty. Unusually for a dance show, however, there were long monologues sprinkled throughout the performance, all written and performed by Acken Taylor. One or two provided some additional details, but some of the others were frankly bizarre, inasmuch as I struggled to relate their lines of argument to the rest of the show – random digressions about lemons and railway lines could have been removed without consequence to the actual plot. Taylor is impassioned and had good stage presence, but I found myself waiting patiently for their speeches to end, in order that the audience could finally see some more dancing.

There’s a level of exquisite charm even when Beauty (Alexis Cruz) – a horse, just in case any readers haven’t come across the story before, is passed from owner to owner (to owner, and so on), with all of them treating him as an object with no free will to be put to work and then sold on once they have no need of him. But the worst excesses of animal ill-treatment are left to the audience’s imagination, which is either wise or a missed opportunity to tell it like it is. There is a happy ending for Beauty, which sends the audience out on a positive note.

It’s telling, though, when the audience isn’t quite sure, despite an empty stage and the house lights going up, that we had indeed reached the interval, with an abrupt close to the first half. Cruz’s Beauty, at least once in each act, closes a scene with a satisfied kind of whinny (yes, this city boy had to look that term up – to whinny is “to neigh especially in a low or gentle way”), and overall, the story is rather more positive than one might reasonably expect. This is, at least in part, because of Conrad Korsch’s compositions, which tend to veer towards pulsating beats rather than melancholy or slow rhythms. These harness the youthful vigour of the company, and while one is wowed by their individual and collective talents, the show left me with a warm feeling that everything turned out okay in the end, rather than fury and disgust at equine cruelty.

The creative team clearly believes in harnessing (horsey pun acknowledged but not intended) positive energy, and there’s a genuine commitment to socio-economic and racial diversity. This wasn’t, alas, a show that held my attention throughout, but it was nonetheless lovely to see a cast evidently enjoying themselves on stage.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

United We Dance International presents the classic tale of Black Beauty, reimagined by directors Andrea Kramer (USA) and Anna Morgan (UK) alongside a company of 20 of the world’s most exciting aspiring professional dancers from 6 continents.

In the creation of this original contemporary ballet, these dancers have had the opportunity to experience working in a company environment, being mentored by a range of industry leaders and nurtured towards their future careers as inspiring artists and change makers.

Sunday 9th July 2023
Sadler’s Wells
Lilian Baylis Studio

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