For South African choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo (LBM), it's been a deliberate risk to collaborate on this dance-theatre production with the composer
Inala may sound like a forced union of cultures and styles. Yet the chemistry between the choir's nine members and the rest of the cast produces a beguilingly credible stage world, one of humming activity, shared stories and a joyful exchange of skills. Baldwin and Spira don't lay out a plot in Inala so much as tease themes and atmosphere from LBM's songs. The work opens at daybreak, in a village stirring with the sounds of animals, humans and crowing roosters. The choir are singing but they're also dancing, making twitchingly comic bird movements that take flight in the sleeker, bolder moves of the dance professionals. As the day advances, there's a sense of people travelling, perhaps towards freedom but also towards danger, as the sounds of the rural community give way to a honking, clashing city. Two dancers shiver and slide through a dark, voodoo duet and one of the younger singers performs an urban rap across the rich, honeyed harmonies of his peers.
The stage design is admirably simple - a few packing cases that serve as chairs, baggage and boats. The dancers are dressed in leather kilts, with their features sometimes concealed beneath tribal masks. As for Baldwin's choreography, although some of the more strictly balletic passages sit oddly, the best of them feel exhilaratingly new-minted, in classically shaped jumps and turns that are earthed to a percussive African energy - fierce feral moves that are part human, part animal.
Most pleasing are the sections where Baldwin unites the cast, merging his own dance language with the intricate shuffles, pliant kicks and hand jives of LBM's traditional routines. The singers are never made to look ill at ease. On the contrary, it's the triumph of Inala that, however far this collaboration takes the choir outside their familiar zone, they remain the irresistible dynamo of the evening.
From twitchingly comic to boldly balletic . . . Ladysmith Black Mambazo's Inala Photograph:
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