A Zulu Ballet with Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Poole Lighthouse, Wessex Hall
Thursday 2nd October 2014
Choreography by Mark Baldwin
Music by Joseph Shabalala, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Ella Spira
I wasn’t sure whether to place this under theatre or concerts. It took place in a concert hall, a full one too, and central to the evening were Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But it was a ballet with dancers from the Royal Ballet and Ballet Rambert.
As the Wessex Hall gets criticized in rock reviews, and rock bands blame it on the hall, let’s start with the impeccable sound. Ladysmith Black Mambazo had nine radio mics, and were constantly moving and dancing wile singing. The backing musicians were placed on a platform running the full width of the stage, and above the heads of the performers, reminding me of Peter Brooks’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream with its twin drummers on such a platform. The live music consisted of piano, xylophone doubling on percussion, drums doubling on percussion, and two string players (unless there was a third we couldn’t see around the corner). Two drummers, with amplification, nine vocalists, amplified violin and cello, grand piano. And the sound was perfect. I wish I could have dragged in all those sound crews and bands who have had bad sound in this hall, and then blamed it on the room. If you can get tonight’s combination perfect, you can get anything perfect. It’s a classical concert hall. You have to work with its fine natural acoustic. They did. Classical always gets it right here. Folk and jazz often have too. There is an advantage in total control … no one had a Marshall stack behind them. All the instruments were acoustic, though I assume the strings had pick-ups rather than mics. Also the platform, ten feet above stage level protected the mics from sound bleeding directly into them from the rear … I recall that NKOTB at the O2, another show where dancing was important … placed the band above the head level of the singers.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Ladysmith Black Mambazo have shrunk in numbers since last time I saw them, many years ago on a post Graceland tour. There were nine singers tonight, and there were nine dancers. It’s eclectic, in that the dancing draws from classical and contemporary Western dance mainly, while Ladysmith Black Mambazo do their township moves. They integrate the singers and the dancers at several points, and get touches of humour from two singers who have back problems or decline to dance … but at other points everyone, all nine of them, are integrated in movement with the dancers. There are references to Indian dance, martial arts and African dance, but it’s mainly conventional modern ballet. Ladysmith Black Mambazo do mime too … the chickens pecking early on were wonderful … surrounded by the dancers.
The dancers are European or mixed race, not Zulu. It reminded me, the whole thing, of the Shaolin Wheel of Life shows where Western music and lighting was applied to the Shaolin monks traditional martial arts demonstrations with a story imposed. After it ended, some monks stayed in Britain and Germany and my son studied martial arts with them. Later they arranged to do some martial arts demonstrations in Scotland and expected their colleagues from Germany to join them. The travelling party from Germany had immigration problems, and my then very blonde son and his very dark Afro-Caribbean friend went to Scotland with the Chinese monks to swell the ranks. No one seemed bothered that both looked anything but Chinese. Here, no one is concerned that the dancers are not Zulu. And as well as the singers joining in dance routines, the dancers join the Ladysmith routines, and do them with the same fluidity.
The singing and the dancing are of the highest quality in the show. I found though there is a magnetism about Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s moves, with their black trousers and white gym shoes, that took my attention more than the dancers. Good as they were, the ballet dancers to me were as illustration to the hypnotically beautiful singing and movement of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I thought back to Marvin Gaye in 1976 with full orchestra and superb ballet dancers. However wonderful they were, your eyes were still drawn to the singer.
As above, the sound was of the highest quality. Much of the music was memorable … I loved the drummer + percussionist only pieces in each half, and I also enjoyed the piano + string section (with no drums) pieces. The backing was a mix … the drums, percussion and xylophone sound African (brilliantly played too) while the piano and strings were so Western. In one way the beautifully played piano was just a bit too Billy Joel in effect to me … it was designed to show an eclectic mix, but it sometimes came across (as the whole show did) as somewhat lightweight.
A thoroughly enjoyable evening. Lots of standing applause. Sublime singing. Beautifully performed dancing … but neither of us felt that buzz of excitement that innovative dance theatre should bring you.