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Perfect harmony: Song and dance blend to evoke Africa

INALA means "abundance of goodwill" in Zulu.

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It has also, in recent weeks, translated into a remarkable, generous-spirited collaboration across art forms and cultures - a first-ever dance piece where the legendary South African a capella group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, is an integral part of the choreography.

Their music is the driving force that brought the whole project into being, but the singers are also on stage and moving alongside the mix of other dancers - some classically trained and some from a contemporary background -

that choreographer Mark Baldwin has selected from the Royal Ballet and Rambert.

On paper, the ambition looks not just unlikely, but far-fetched, with so many loose ends to marry up in the one place at the same time.

Come the weekend, however, Inala will have its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival before embarking on a UK tour, and executive producers Pietra Mello-Pittman and Ella Spira (aka Sisters Grimm) will finally believe that cherished pipe-dreams can become a ground-breaking reality.

"I doubt if any of this would have been at all possible 20 years ago," says Spira, a London-based composer and pianist working mainly with classical music, but with an enthusiasm for contemporary popular culture and the diversity it embraces.

If she's harking back to the South Africa of pre-democracy days, when goodwill between white and black communities wasn't noticeably abundant, she soon makes it clear that Inala is a project that looks forward.

"This all started because I loved that wonderful 'wall of sound' that Ladysmith Black Mambazo (LBM) create with their vocal harmonies," she says.

"And I kept wishing I could work with them - not turn up saying 'here's this piece I've written and you can be in it', because that would be so unbelievably arrogant.

"But just wanting to see if there was something new, some fresh approach, that we - as Sisters Grimm - could try."

Mello-Pittman, meanwhile, was listening with her eyes. Dancing with the Royal Ballet, and then choreographing her own work meant she came away from her first LBM concert savouring the way the men moved when they sang.

How they just seemed to take the rhythms into their bodies and then - with an orchestrated harmony of steps - let the music flow from top to toe. Even now, when the two of them start explaining the why and how of Inala, you catch the sheer excitement and intensity of vision that then plunged them into months of research, planning, negotiating and box-ticking.

And when the day's rehearsals begin, their faces shine with an oddly tender amazement as nine truly individual dancers join forces with the nine charismatic singers who are their partners.

For one dancer, Mbulelo Ndabeni, this whole experience stirs powerful thoughts of home and family.

"This is the music I grew up with in South Africa," he says. "My late father loved this band, LOVED them - so their music is a very big part of me. Even more so, now I'm away from home.

"Coming to London, you get detached from your culture, but you also start to look at it differently and in my case, appreciate it more. And now, here it is. My home has come to London, and that sense of detachment just melts away with the music.

"I keep thinking of how my father would feel: me, dancing with his favourite band. But also celebrating how far we've come in the last 20 years, how much has changed even in my own lifetime. This can never be just another dance piece for me and I don't know if any other dance piece will feel this special or significant to me again."

Something of those emotional undercurrents are in Mark Baldwin's mind as well. He's been in London for most of his adult life, and with Rambert - as a dancer, choreographer and now its artistic director - for most of his career.

The studio space in Richmond where Inala is taking shape is familiar territory to him - it's part of Rambert's own school and he's frequently worked with its students there. But today, his voice a croaky whisper from a throat infection, he's admitting that there are aspects of Inala that have made him homesick for the Polynesian culture that was part of his growing up in New Zealand.

"I hadn't quite expected this," he says, as his laugh turns into a melancholy rasp. "I've found myself thinking back to the tribal dances I sometimes watched as a child and realising - even if I never joined in or learned them - how deep certain cultural influences can go.

"How a certain rhythm, or a certain way of moving can stay with you. Even if you're not aware of it, I think it can feed into what you do. And when I started listening to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, watched them moving as they sang - because they're never static - I recognised how much of their own Zulu traditions, and tribal experiences, lived on in their performances.

"So a lot of the conceptual ideas I'd had in mind just had to go. It's been a fascinating experience building this new choreography around them, because - as audiences will see - they are definitely a part of the dance."

That dance might be connected to the distinctive character of what Ladysmith Black Mambazo have created in the past 50 years, but Baldwin's choreography is not looking to join up their songs of hardship and resilience into a literal narrative. Instead, Inala is like a mosaic of cultural textures.

Spira's ambition to write a score with LBM took shape round a piano in South Africa.

"Pietra kept encouraging me to not to fight shy of the challenge.

"And she'd say 'why not try something that really shows off your skills as a composer?' But anything showy or complicated just didn't work.

"It was getting in the way of the established harmonies, their amazing richness.

"They are so authentic, you can't over-ride that with a piece of compositional artifice."

So now Inala dances to an atmospheric soundscape where live music - Spira's piano score melding with LBM's vocals, a strand of percussion and orchestrated bird and animal calls - suggests different settings, different moods, different times of day and night.

Baldwin explains: "We wanted to evoke moments that are part of the Africa that Ladysmith Black Mambazo come from. To have the dancers - sometimes in masks - as the spirits that get conjured up in village rituals, or as the birds that peck about in townships, or as the communities who had to leave tribal homelands to work in the towns. But most of all, I suppose, with the historic end of apartheid, we wanted to bring everybody together in a work that bridged cultures."

Watching all this from the sidelines is Mitch Goldstein, LBM's tour manager. "When Nelson Mandela said to them that they are the 'South African Cultural Ambassadors to the world', they took this very seriously," he says. "And because of that, even though they all love to try out new things and get involved, they've had to choose collaborative projects carefully.

"Inala is a really different experience for them, but what came across right from the start was how much respect there was for LBM and what they do.

"They weren't going to be somewhere off-stage, singing, they were going to be at the heart of the dance.

"I'm seeing new ideas, new energies coming out of them - youngest and oldest - because they're bringing their music to a totally new process.

"And hopefully, to a new audience as well."

Inala is at the Edinburgh Playhouse from Sunday to Tuesday August 12, 8pm. Ladysmith Black Mambazo are in concert at the same venue on Saturday August 9, 8pm

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