“This is definitely the first time I’ve asked dancers to pirouette and headbang in the same order,” choreographer Pontus Lidberg said after rehearsals at Birmingham Hippodrome.
Moments before, the room was filled with the sound of heavy guitar riffs, pounding drums and screeching synths, a far cry from the twinkling notes of the Nutcracker that ballet dancers are more used to.
Rehearsals are now underway for Black Sabbath: the Ballet, which is set to open in September in the band’s hometown, as “the world’s first heavy metal dance experience”.
The production is the vision of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s artistic director, Carlos Acosta, who wanted to celebrate what he described as “the most famous and renowned cultural entity to emerge from the city ever”.
“Black Sabbath is so different from the ballet world and I wanted to expand our range,” he said. “I hate being predictable, I hate taking over the company. Everyone knows Swan Lake and Cinderella.
“We already know that 60% of the tickets bought came from the world of heavy metal. That’s a great opportunity for us to show people the world of dance.”
The band’s guitarist Tony Iommi, who performed with frontman Ozzy Osbourne in a surprise reunion at last year’s Commonwealth Games closing ceremony in Birmingham, has given his blessing to the project and is helping guide its musical direction.
“The feedback from our fans has been great. He is pushing the music outside the box. I like something more adventurous, and that’s exactly what it’s about,” he said. “Who would have thought that Black Sabbath and ballet would go together? But it’s working.”
One of the first challenges the creative team faced was that most of Black Sabbath’s songs were not written down on sheet music, and it was often wrong where they were, Iommi said.
“Most of the people who do the Sabbath stuff, from what I’ve heard, it’s never quite right, it’s always a little off,” Iommi said. “[Sabbath music] it’s not always on time, and I think this performance perfectly suited that.”
“The glorious irregularity is important,” said orchestrator Christopher Austin, who wrote the show’s Black Sabbath-inspired musical score. “It’s not just the songs, it’s the spirit.”
The ballet will be split across three actors and will feature eight of the band’s songs, including their most famous hits such as Paranoid and Iron Man, all performed live by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.
Playwright Richard Thomas said that the first act would focus on the music, while the second act would be made up of narrative fragments documenting the band’s most famous stories, including how Iommi severed his fingers in an accident on the last day of their his work in a sheet metal factory, which put his guitar playing at risk. It is also understood to cover the infamous moment when Osbourne chopped the head off a bat.
A guitarist will be on stage for most of the show, with dancers weaving around, putting the band’s music firmly at center stage.
“This is not a story ballet, or a tribute act, or a documentary; the music and dance are the absolute stars. It’s simply Birmingham Royal Ballet meets Black Sabbath, and we see how the concept evolves,” said Thomas. “There’s also a lot of humor in Black Sabbath if you look at the archival material, so that’s reflected in the essay.”
Historic and new audio recordings of fans and band members will also be played, including Osbourne with his wife, Sharon, before the final essay focuses on the band’s legacy.
The performance is the second in a ballet trilogy that Acosta plans to celebrate Birmingham’s contribution to the world and bring the art form to new audiences. The first, City of a Thousand Trades, covered Birmingham’s immigration and industrial history.
Iommi said Black Sabbath fans have been eagerly awaiting the sold-out show, and he expects them to be singing in the audience – “something you wouldn’t normally see at a ballet”.
He said: “It’s a different world for me. And we are bringing our fans, who have probably never seen a ballet in their lives. And I hope ballet fans enjoy some of the music too.”
Black Sunday: the Ballet will perform at the Birmingham Hippodrome on 23 September.