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Inala at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, 4th October 2014

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Bristling with tension and vibrant with joy, Inala is a triumph. Performed before a packed Cambridge Corn Exchange on the 4th October, it began with nothing but the rhythmic thudding of stamping feet and slapping hands. Adelene Stanley swept onto the stage all the grace of an ocean wave, and thus was the audience taken into an at times bizarre, unsettling, and fundamentally euphoric production. At the show’s heart were its love stories: Mbulelo Ndabeni’s breath-taking duet with Adelene Stanley standing in subtle contrast to Sophie Apollonia and James Butcher’s thrumming, inhabited love, so remarkably portrayed as to nearly steal an already show-stopping ballet. Every dancer that took part in this performance was exceptional: there is simply no more accurate review. It is difficult to describe the combination of grace and force that they so ably executed. And it is difficult to imagine how the exhilarating wide arcing swings from ballet to Zulu dance and back could have been better orchestrated by choreographer Mark Baldwin. Part of the joy for the viewer was that these professionals would occasionally break character to beam at one another, grinning as they ran and leapt and spun across the artfully lit stage. These were an assembled legion in, as one of its Executive Producers and Composers Ella Spira pointed out, “all shapes and sizes”, from Rambert, the Royal Ballet and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Along with fellow Executive Producer Pietra Mello-Pitman, Spira wanted to create a fusion of dance and choral music. With composer Joseph Shabalala and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, they wanted to fuse Zulu tradition and the classical West. Despite a chorus of cynics, they have done it.

Searching for a story in this production is difficult: indeed, the audience is instructed in the show’s programme to ‘interpret their own journey.’ Once the warm light and dusty smoke that brought the heat of the South African desert faded, the audience was silent for the first several pieces, and it was difficult to tell whether this was due to respect or the simpler silence of misunderstanding. Certainly, though at times viscerally resonant with a universal human experience, at others it is difficult to engage with Inala. It is, after all, not quite like anything its audience is likely to have seen: being both classical and traditional, balletic and interpretive, and thus difficult to meet. This appears to be sometimes deliberate and sometimes not: certainly the hair raising opening to the second half is deliberately alien, Stanley, again, stands out here: performing strange, broken, grating movements beside Ndabeni, whose body was painted with bones. The costume design was eye catching: most often there was a recurring theme of the dancers as birds, with great hooked beaks somewhat reminiscent of medieval plague doctors, leather braces and loose leather skirts. Whilst the costumes did seem to epitomize the blend of both the South African wild and the dangers of the urban world echoed throughout, these too were difficult concepts with which to engage, it was hard at times to explicate the reappearance of them. This said, of course it is a subjective experience, and so may well have been different for most.

A last note worth mentioning is the production’s sense of humour. For what Marry Brennan called ‘an abundantly life-affirming show’, Inala does not take itself too seriously. This seems to be owed especially to the vivacious Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who tease and heckle the dancers on stage, pull faces and make jokes. This is not to say there are not deeply emotional, and indeed tragic elements in the ballet: there are, Wamuhle Ntombi is a good example, but these are just one part of it. The phrase ‘slice of life’ seems generally to be used as a derogatory one these days, describing mundane realities in TV productions. However, what Inala has done seems best described as just that, it has seized a part of life, bright and broken and frightening and joyous, with all of its dimension and all of its flaws, and made it dance. If ever you have the opportunity, be sure to attend what is indeed a universal celebration of the human experience.

Words from Gabrielle Watts