The Legendary Soweto Gospel Choir Star In This Stunning Zulu Ballet

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The Legendary Soweto Gospel Choir Star In This Stunning Zulu Ballet

Grammy award-winning choir legends take centre-stage in Zulu ballet, INALA.

Soweto Gospel Choir show off their many talents, with some hiccups along the way.

London is home to an abundance of glittering West End shows – from misunderstood green witches, to musical legends – yet none come close to demonstrating the great need for cultural diversity quite like INALA.

Presented as a Zulu ballet, ‘Inala’ translates as an abundance of goodwill in Zulu and it is clear the will is good from ambitious directors Sisters Grimm (composer Ella Spira and producer Pietra Mello-Pittman) in their wishes to unite different cultures and artistic backgrounds centre-stage.

INALA already boasts two sell-out runs at Sadler’s Wells and, until 18 May, makes its West End debut at the Peacock Theatre. After premiering in 2014 to mark 20 years of democracy in South Africa, Sisters Grimm have invited the powerful voices of Soweto Gospel Choir (loved by big names Nelson Mandela, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin) to join in the fun.

The spirit of South Africa is present from the moment the curtain rises. Traditional Zulu rhythms composed by Joseph Shabala and Ladysmith Black Mambazo float from the back of the stage. The musicians are silhouetted by a sandy orange backdrop that matches the simple browns, blues and greens of the tribal-like attire worn by the choir before them. It is refreshing to see a pared back, stripped down setting – only accompanied by the occasional crate that bears similarities to an African drum – so you can rest easy knowing there won’t be a swing in sight.

The audience are transported back in time to simpler days of crickets chirping and birds foraging, performed exquisitely by world-class ballet dancers, as the choir sways in time with their Zulu lyrics. In fact, not a word of English is uttered by the group until the second act, and even then it is fleeting like the bird-like limbs of the dancers that flit around them.

Since the performance was almost entirely in Zulu, INALA is difficult to follow and often feels quite alienating at times. The audience felt like voyeurs, peering in on a culture that was made to be a spectacle. There didn’t appear to be any obvious plotline or character development, either, and sometimes even the choir members took part in the high kicks favoured by their dancing counterparts which sparked a few confused titters from the audience.

The fusion of South African and Western cultures is exhilarating, but at times it feels chaotic with up to 20 dancers, choir members and musicians on-stage. In theatre-terms, there isn’t a phrase that matches ‘ too many cooks spoil the broth’ but sadly the sheer amount of bodies onstage did take away from the breath-taking talent of the dancers. The audience didn’t quite know where to look – at the choir who were swaying and moving their feet? At a group of dancers doing a floor piece, or at a set of birds twirling and spinning on and off stage?

Despite the often unrefined and unpolished nature of the show, the combination of gospel tones and exquisite moves from ballet dancers both male and female, black and white, makes the show powerful, entirely unique, and a visceral celebration of South African culture. Perhaps it is something which this twinkling, tunnel-vision city could use a lot more of.

INALA runs at the Peacock Theatre until 18 May.

Words by Emmie Harrison. Images by Johan Persson.

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Also published on Medium.

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