Heavy Metal Pirouette
Black Sabbath meets ballet. Tony Iommi and Christopher Austin with BRB dancers.Photo Rob Tysall - Pro Photography.
Black Sabbath: The Ballet, Birmingham Hippodrome, September 23, 24, 27-30.
Preview Ann Evans
Black Sabbath: The Ballet – not two phrases normally linked together but be assured this is going to be one incredible collaboration. This full length 3-act production is the brainchild of Birmingham Royal Ballet Artistic Director, Carlos Acosta originally from Cuba, whose vision is to celebrate the legacy to the world of Black Sabbath and to celebrate the awareness of the importance of the City of Birmingham.
This is the second Birmingham-focussed commission from Acosta. The first, City of a Thousand Trades looked at the city’s industrial heritage and multicultural communities and premiered in 2021.
The idea of a Black Sabbath ballet has been on Acosta’s mind since he first arrived in Birmingham at the start of 2020, just before the pandemic hit. He soon discovered that Black Sabbath played their first ever gig in The Crown pub just a stone’s throw from Birmingham Royal Ballet’s base on Thorp Street. The pub was recently saved from demolition and is deemed a heritage site by fans.
Rehearsals are underway. Photo Rob Tysall - Pro Photography.
Acosta said: “Black Sabbath is probably Birmingham’s biggest export, the most famous (and infamous) cultural entity to ever emerge from the city – so I was naturally drawn to the idea of a collaboration between what most people might think are the most unlikely of partners. The band’s enthusiasm for the project is a huge endorsement. They are putting their trust in us to deliver something completely new and original, and that’s quite a responsibility but one that we are beyond excited to take on.”
The band gave the ballet their blessing right from the start. Black Sabbath co-founder, lead guitarist, co-songwriter and local resident Tony Iommi said, “Black Sabbath have always been innovators and have never been predictable, and it doesn’t come any more unpredictable than this! When I saw the ballet dancers, I thought it was fantastic.”
Practicing those air guitars. Photo Rob Tysall - Pro Photography.
With Black Sabbath fully on board, Acosta then gathered together a host of international creatives including lead Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidburg, Cuban designer Alexandre Arrechea, Tony Award winning composer Christopher Austin with additional choreographers Raúl Reinoso and Cassi Abranches and composers Marko Nyberg and Sun Keting. Richard Thomas is dramaturg for the project and lighting design is by Kieron Johnson. Capsule Director Lisa Meyer is Metal Curator.
Talking at a press conference on Thursday 27 April at Birmingham Hippodrome, the media and supporters were privileged to see some early stages of dance routines and hear parts of the musical score, Tony Iommi talked about how excited he was that Carlos Acosta had this vision to create something so different.
Iommi said: “To go out there and do something he believed in, something so different, was like we did in the early days. We came out with the sort of music which was really different then. We went against what was really popular at the time, such as soul – but if you believe in what you’re doing… This is exactly what Carlos is doing. He’s thinking out of the box. And now to see it being performed is really exciting.”
Sun Keting and Toni Iommi. Photo Rob Tysall - Pro Photography.
Eight Black Sabbath tracks will be featured, these being: Paranoid (Paranoid, 1970); Ironman (Paranoid, 1970); War Pigs (Paranoid, 1970); Black Sabbath (Black Sabbath, 1970); Solitude (Master of Reality, 1971); Orchid (Master of Reality, 1971); Laguna Sunrise (Vol 4, 1972) and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, 1973). The music will be re-orchestrated for the Royal Ballet Sinfonia with new compositions inspired by Black Sabbath also performed live by the orchestra. On the stage guitars and drums will be integrated into the performance. Additionally, the voices of the band will be a part of the narrative as they recount anecdotal moments through their lives promising a lot of humour.
Tony Iommi watching the rehearsal. Photo Rob Tysall - Pro Photography.
Christopher Austin, Lead Composer, Project Music Supervisor and Conductor was asked about how he went about selecting the songs for the ballet. He said, “Their catalogue of music is enormous and so rich that it was a hard process for us to narrow it down to create an evening length show that had variety but was also unified.”
He was understandably nervous to play his compositions to Tony Iommi, as it was so important for him to know the material was written down correctly. But he needn’t have worried as Tony quickly gave him the seal of approval. Tony Iommi said: “People usually don’t get it quite right. Most people doing Sabbath stuff, from what I’ve heard, have never quite got it right. It’s always slightly off, it’s not always in time, and I think this production has captured that perfectly. It was right. Spot on! And it’s great to hear the different approach. It is very inventive.”
L-R: Carlos Acosta, (unknown), Alexandra Arrechea, Tony Iommi, Christopher Austin. Photo Rob Tysall - Pro Photography.
Some of the Birmingham performances have already sold out, with, it seems, around 60% of people being rock music and Black Sabbath fans – who may never have been to a ballet before. Everyone is hoping that rock music fans will enjoy the ballet, and likewise ballet fans will enjoy the music of Black Sabbath.
With such a unique mix, I think the result will be exquisite!
Birmingham Royal Ballet dancers. Photo Rob Tysall - Pro Photography.
Birmingham Hippodrome, September 23, 24, 27-30. Details www.birminghamhippodrome.com
Plymouth Theatre Royal, 12 – 14 October. https://theatreroyal.com/whats-on/2023b-black-sabbath/
Sadler’s Wells, London, 18 – 21 October. https://www.sadlerswells.com/