Students from Hackney Musical Development Trust's (HMDT) I Can Sing! Performing Arts School performed a specially-adapted dance version of Julian Joseph's jazz opera 'Shadowball' and the follow-on production of 'The Brown Bomber Dance suite' as part of the London 2012 celebrations. Both projects involved the school students learning about the history of racial integration in baseball (Shadowball) and the historic 1936 and 1938 boxing matches between German Max Schmeling and African-American Joe Louis (The Brown Bomber).
Shadowball playfully mixed iconic baseball action: pitching, batting and sliding into jazz style dance phrases which were performed with panache to the accompanying swinging music played by the Julian Joseph Sextet. The dancers (who were from four years 5 & 6 classes from two neighbouring schools) displayed an excellent sense of musicality and phrasing in their dancing which united the complexity of the narrative, the sport and the dancing around its underlying theme of its historical context and the popular jazz music of the time.
Poignantly, the death of Josh Gibson ("the black Babe Ruth") was alluded to: a dancer held his body stiffly in a cross shape and was lifted above the others' heads. Behind the pallbearers carrying his body across the stage was a funeral procession who turned 360 degrees on every second step. Performed solemnly and with full conviction, it was a very moving 'dance funeral' sequence.
The piece ended in an upbeat mode with both teams returning with overtones of West Side Story's Jets and Sharks as they played at psyching each other out dance-style before a big finale which wouldn't have looked out of place in an MGM musical.
This dance suite version of 'Shadowball' was fun, poignant and joyful to watch, and the fact that it stemmed from a great educational project made it even more satisfying. I'd definitely like to see the full opera version revival please.
The Brown Bomber dance suite was a superb piece of dance theatre. The dancers embodied a multitude of characters epitomising the time of the second boxing match between Schmeling and Louis. The boxers' training camps with their attendant fans and young pretenders, the managers and coaches were all brought exquisitely to life through well-developed characterisation and well-chosen dance styling. Adding another layer of vivacity to the piece were the no-expense-spared costumes; it was like watching a dance version of the Bugsy Malone film.
Professional dancers Jason Poullard and Bless Klepcharek performed the roles of the two main boxers, bringing a balletic grace to the boxing; their fluidity and agility brought more of a Muhammad Ali style to the boxers which was slightly incongruous considering that they were playing heavyweight champions, but their considerable technique, precision and turning ability worked very well to portray the skill of the boxers presented through dance.
Sheron Wray's choreography created a complex, layered piece with simultaneous events happening on the stage that worked pictorially overall and rewarded you wherever you chose to focus. The clever set added to the piece by dividing the stage with rope barriers to create two boxing rings then one, which added a further sense of design to the stage without robbing the space for the dance action. The performers coped admirably with a set malfunction, showing skills in improvisation well in keeping with the accompanying jazz sextet.
Memories of this work will stay with me for a long time and having never participated in a standing ovation previously, I am so glad that I put down my notebook and stood up for this fantastic dance work. Congratulations to all.
The Brown Bomber will next be performed at the South Bank Centre on 15 July as part of the Cultural Olympiad; further details and tickets are available via this link: ticketing.southbankcentre.co.uk/find/dance-performance/tickets/julian-joseph-the-brown-bomber-65758