“A compelling, immersive experience”: Our verdict on Black Sabbath – The Ballet

Black Sabbath and ballet? Could it work?! We headed to Sadler’s Wells in London to find out, as the blueprint of heavy metal comes face-to-face with the Birmingham Royal Ballet in a stunning celebration of an enduring, wondrous legacy…

“A compelling, immersive experience”: Our verdict on Black Sabbath – The Ballet
Ian Winwood
Johan Persson

As the third and final act of Black Sabbath – The Ballet approaches its denouement, onstage at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, a man in black bearing a Gibson SG guitar strides from among the dancers to the front of the stage. Not for a moment does this already lavishly acclaimed production, here in London for the first of four full-house performances following a premiere in the band’s hometown of Birmingham, followed by a trio of bookings in Plymouth, require a guest appearance from one Tony Iommi. But the arrival onstage of the group’s sole guitarist and only constant member – a man without whom tonight’s strange and unique action would not exist – allows the festivities to feel, for the first and only time in its two-and-a-half-hour duration, like a concert.

Because this isn’t a gig. While we’re about it, neither is it a play with linear narration, or a jukebox musical featuring all the hits placed in an order that encourages the audience to sing along in happy unity. The clue is in the name, of course, but Black Sabbath – The Ballet is just that: a presentation of some of the band’s music interpreted through the medium of modern dance. As such, the evening belongs to the dancers themselves, a crack-unit whose flexibility and unity is a wonder to behold. But with a different choreographer for each act – Raúl Reinoso, Cassi Abranches and Pontus Lidberg, respectively – don’t be expecting a chewable story, or even a great deal of cohesion, either. Not that this is the problem it might be in less talented hands. On a wet Wednesday night in the thick of autumn, the various feasts for the eye coalesce into a compelling, immersive experience.

And don’t be so sure that a ballet about Black Sabbath is quite as incongruous as it may at first appear, either. For while the sound of War Pigs and Paranoid piping through the PA may at first seem like a sign of a world turned upside-down – as if perhaps, up at Rock City in Nottingham, a crowd is gathering to hear a black metal production of Cosi Fan Tutte – it isn’t only the music-makers eulogised onstage at Britain’s leading theatre of dance who sprang from hardscrabble streets. Carlos Acosta, the director of the world-renowned Birmingham Royal Ballet, the man and the company responsible for this production, began his life in ballet, in Cuba, as the youngest of 11 children despatched to a school dance class by his truck driver father in the hope of finding use for his excess energies. Job done. The family were poor enough that a free meal for each student came in double-handy, too. After a career as a dancer that included 17 years with the English National Ballet, his managerial gig in Birmingham began with the stated aim of staging productions that were relevant to the local community. Again, job done.

Because you don’t get much more Brum than Black Sabbath. Birmingham may well be the country’s Second City, at least in terms of size and geography, but with a roster of musical talent that also includes ELO, The Spencer Davis Group, The Moody Blues, Joan Armatrading, Roy Wood, UB40, not to mention Slade and Judas Priest from nearby satellite towns, this often (shamefully) derided region is in fact the beating heart of modern British culture. Manchester might just compete with it, but London certainly cannot.

So it’s nice, in the heart of the capital city, to hear the voices and accents of Black Sabbath’s four original members – along with Tony, bassist Geezer Butler, drummer Bill Ward and singer Ozzy Osbourne – piped through the PA. As the production reaches one of its many heights, one might even wonder exactly how things went wrong for this most pivotal of bands. But then you get a clue. “The budget for cocaine [one of the albums] was more than the recording budget,” says Geezer. “And the recording budget was $80,000.”

But the challenges faced by Black Sabbath are this ballet’s secret ingredient. Of many show-stopping set-pieces, perhaps most impressive of all is the oblique interpretation, in the opening act, of the industrial accident that required Tony Iommi to down-tune his guitar in order to continue making music, following the severance of the tips of two fingers on his right hand. With that, a brand new genre was born – and how many bands can say they accomplished that? – a genre whose enduring vitality has taken it from clubs of the Midlands to the stage at Sadler's Wells. As tonight’s ticketholders trudge toward Angel tube station in the post-show rain, they pass a bill-poster on the theatre wall. ‘Black Sabbath – The Ballet,’ it reads, ‘Sold Out.’ Deservedly so.

Verdict: 4/5

Black Sabbath – The Ballet continues at Sadler's Wells, London, until October 21

Read this next:

Check out more:

Now read these

The best of Kerrang! delivered straight to your inbox three times a week. What are you waiting for?