Birmingham Royal Ballet Rocks the Stage With Black Sabbath: The Ballet

September 27, 2023

Headbanging and air guitar? Not the typical movements that come to mind when Birmingham Royal Ballet announces a new full-length work. But the company has been transforming how classical ballet looks and sounds, finding harmony in artistic juxtaposition in Black Sabbath: The Ballet, which premiered at the Birmingham Hippodrome on September 23.

Although heavy metal music and classical ballet seem worlds apart, BRB artistic director Carlos Acosta finds common ground between them. His inspirations: the company’s home city of Birmingham and the rock band Black Sabbath. Since he took the helm at BRB in January 2020, Acosta has prioritized commissioning works centering on England’s second-largest city. Black Sabbath is his second Birmingham-based commission following Miguel Altunaga’s 2021 City of a Thousand Trades, highlighting the city’s industrial and multicultural heritage.

Black Sabbath played its first show in 1968 at The Crown, a pub located just a five-minute walk away from BRB’s headquarters, which was an exciting and pertinent inspiration for Acosta. “Black Sabbath is probably Birmingham’s biggest export, the most famous (and infamous) cultural entity to ever emerge from the city—so I was naturally drawn to the idea of a collaboration between what most people might think are the most unlikely of partners,” he said in a statement. “The band’s enthusiasm for the project is a huge endorsement. They are putting their trust in us to deliver something completely new and original, and that’s quite a responsibility, but one that we are beyond excited to take on.”

Carlos Acosta and Tony Iommi on the Black Sabbath Bridge in Birmingham.
Carlos Acosta and Tony Iommi on the Black Sabbath Bridge in Birmingham. Photo by Drew Tommons, courtesy Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath’s co-founder and lead guitarist, and a Birmingham resident, embraces the unexpected fusion between his band and the ballet. “Black Sabbath have always been innovators and never been predictable, and it doesn’t come any more unpredictable than this,” he said. “I’d never imagined pairing Black Sabbath with ballet, but it’s got a nice ring to it!”

The ballet features eight of Black Sabbath’s biggest hits arranged for the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. The orchestra will perform live with the company, conducted in alternation by lead composer Christopher Austin and Royal Ballet Sinfonia principal conductor Paul Murphy. Sun Keting, along with fellow composer and sound designer Marko Nyberg, also contributed to the orchestration of the heavy metal symphony and new works inspired by the band.

Pontus Lidberg, shown shirtless chest-up, poses for a serious portrait photo.
Pontus Lidberg. Photo by by Nir Arieli, courtesy Birmingham Royal Ballet.

“The band has blessed the project, and Tony has been quite involved and very present. It has been an honor,” lead Black Sabbath: The Ballet choreographer Pontus Lidberg tells Pointe. Acosta pitched the idea to Lidberg early in his leadership, just before the pandemic. Lidberg, who was artistic director of Danish Dance Theatre until 2022, collaborated with choreographers Raúl Reinoso and Cassi Abranches to develop the three-act ballet.

There is great mutual respect among the artists. “I performed alongside some of the [BRB] dancers at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, and they had an incredible energy,” Iommi recalled. “I’m happy to go along for the ride with them and ‘see you on the other side!’ ” he added, referencing one of the band’s most popular songs.

Lidberg has embraced the meeting of art forms, as he describes it, to create something new. “Ballet dancers are ballet dancers and heavy metal is heavy metal. It’s the encounter that is exciting,” he says. In the choreography, he reveals, “there are both headbangs and pirouettes involved,” a compelling image of traditional classical aesthetics and raw, heavy-metal athleticism.

Black Sabbath: The Ballet debuted in the Birmingham Hippodrome with a week of shows before touring to Theatre Royal Plymouth and Sadler’s Wells in October. Performances in all three cities are sold out.