The Zulu ballet inspired by a leap of faith

The word ‘unique’ is far too overused when it comes to describing theatre shows. It is, however, an entirely appropriate word to describe Inala, which features Grammy-award winning South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Inala features various different genres of dance and music
Inala features various different genres of dance and music

“Funnily enough, we’ve struggled to describe exactly what the show is – it sits somewhere between a dance show, a musical and a concert,” says Ella Spira, a composer and producer who created the idea of Inala with her friend and First Artist of the Royal Ballet, Pietra Mello-Pittman.

“The initial idea has always stayed the same, but we didn’t know six years ago what it would end up being the amazing visual spectacle it has become.”

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Inala is a Zulu word meaning “abundance of goodwill” and appears to be the perfect title for a show that arrives at Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre next week and has had a major impact with audiences.

The show premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in August last year, before moving to Sadlers’ Wells in London and from there on to a sell-out tour. It was also a part of the Royal Variety Performance in December last year.

Featuring world class dancers from both the Royal Ballet and Rambert, the extra special factor that makes the show so popular is that it also features musicians from the Ladysmith Black Mambazo group – although any one of the many elements that make up the show would be enough of a draw for audiences.

“It is a pretty enormous show,” says Spira, “I’m not sure what we were thinking by taking it on. I happened to be listening to Graceland (the Paul Simon album heavily influenced by his time in South Africa) and Pietra and I had already started working together and I suddenly realised this was it, this was the perfect thing for us to work together on.

“I would kill to work with Ladysmith Black Mambazo (who performed on the Graceland album) so we decided to approach them.”

Pietra Mello-Pittman is, it’s fair to say, a little unusual. As First Artist of the Royal Ballet, you might expect her to be obsessed with dancing and little else. It transpires there is an awful lot more to her than pointed toes.
 “I am a bit different to a lot of my friends in the ballet world,” she says. “I’ve always been quite organised and am pretty good at planning and scheduling – and budgeting. I love a spreadsheet.”

At this point Spira chimes in, demonstrating that they are a pair that work in perfect harmony. “Oh yes, Excel spreadsheets are brilliant. When we discovered Google Docs and that we could work on something while we were both at home in our respective beds, that was exciting.”

For Mello-Pittman, Inala meant that she stopped dancing and indulged fully her love of spreadsheets.

“I always studied and did ballet as a hobby, eventually it became a very serious hobby, but I’ve always juggled lots of different things – I’d juggle my ballet exams around my school work and GCSEs and then it slowly became the other way round and I became a full-time dancer.”

So, what exactly is the show, other than quite difficult to put into a box?

Spira says: “It is – as we always knew it could be – a big live spectacle. The musicians on stage are absolutely a part of the dance landscape we create – they range from 27, the grandson of the founder Joseph Shabalala, right up to musicians in their mid-60s.
 “The dancers are also from a broad range of styles. There is dancing that looks like traditional ballet, but then there are parts with much more grounded movement.”

Mello-Pittman adds: “The themes in the show are also ones that anyone and everyone can relate to. Some of the themes are rooted in African tradition, but there are songs and dances that are about jealousy, love, playfulness – emotions that anyone can relate to.”

Touring a show with dancers and musicians sounds like it might be a logistical nightmare and both producers admit it is a “challenge”, hence dancer Mello-Pittman leaving dancing to take up the role full time. It seems to have been a rewarding decision.

“We all appear to have found a common language to overcome some of the challenges of touring a show like this,” she says.

“The great thing is when we get feedback from audiences who wouldn’t normally go and see a dance show say they love it because they find it much more accessible than a ‘dance’ show.”

It would appear the pair set out to achieve something massive with Inala and are indeed now reaping that “abundance of goodwill”.