"It’s basically this story of rags to riches" - Behind the scenes at the Black Sabbath ballet

Carlos Acosta and Tony Iommi on the Black Sabbath Bridge in Birmingham
Birmingham Royal Ballet company director Carlos Acosta and Tony Iommi on the Black Sabbath Bridge in Birmingham (Image credit: Drew Tommons)

Call it nuts, crackers, daft and a variety of other adjectives, but Black Sabbath are getting their very own ballet. Hosted in the band’s home city of Birmingham, the project is the brainchild of Birmingham Royal Ballet company director Carlos Acosta, who is working with an extended creative team of choreographers, composers and designers – alongside a collection of dancers and musicians – to bring the music of Black Sabbath to life like never before. 

“We’re here to celebrate the legacy of Black Sabbath as a band and the world of rock,” Acosta explains, addressing an audience of ballet patrons and press attending the first public showcase of the project at Birmingham’s Hippodrome Theatre. “I wanted to celebrate all the things this city has brought to the world, to have something that could represent Birmingham and open new doors for us.” 

The project has plenty of supporters, including Black Sabbath legend Tony Iommi, who has worked closely with the team and given his seal of approval. 

“It’s exciting, isn’t it? We’re still breaking boundaries all these years later,” he tells Classic Rock delightedly, sitting in the dance studio later that afternoon having watched some rehearsal performances. “I loved Carlos’s approach – to go out to do something he believes in. It’s what we did when we started. The belief I’ve always had with our music is that you have to step out the box and try something different, and to keep on, to keep believing in it. Carlos has had that same approach with his ballet.” 

Set to run in Birmingham from September 23 to 30, the ballet will later visit Plymouth’s TheatreRoyal and London’s Sadler’s Wells in October. Spread across three acts, the ballet promises to reproduce notable instances of Black Sabbath’s history (including Iommi’s finger-slicing run-in with a sheet metal press), alongside an exploration of how their music has had a global impact, not least helping to give birth to heavy metal. 

Along the way, dancers will perform to re-imagined orchestral versions of eight songs from the first five Sabbath records: Paranoid, Iron Man, War Pigs, Black Sabbath, Solitude, Orchid, Laguna Sunrise and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.

Tony Iommi and the Sabbath ballet’s lead composer Chris Austin

Tony Iommi and the Black Sabbath ballet’s lead composer Chris Austin (Image credit: Chris Austin)

“The first question I had to ask myself,” says lead composer Chris Austin, “was: ‘Where do you start?’ Because the Sabbath catalogue is enormous, and so rich and varied. Unlike something like The Beatles, where you can buy two volumes of the complete scores with instrumental parts, there’s not so much for Sabbath material.” 

“And most of it is wrong anyway!” Iommi adds with a chuckle. 

“We took down all the song components – drum parts, bass, singing, guitars – by ear,” Austin continues. “Tony wanted to check it to make sure it wasn’t like the other versions, and gave it all the seal of approval. It might seem like a secretarial thing, but it was important to feel like we had the material correct.” 

Iommi isn’t the only member of Sabbath involved in the project either. Ballet dramaturg Richard Thomas has revealed plans to also use audio interviews with Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne to help develop the show’s narrative and show just how much of an impact Sabbath have had on the wider world. 

“It’s basically this story of rags to riches,” Acosta explains. “From the factory floor to one of the most successful bands in rock history. We want to take people to this higher place where people can leave with huge smiles on their faces, humming these great tunes.” 

While Iommi admits to being something of a neophyte when it comes to ballet – his closest encounter coming during his guest spot at Birmingham’s Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in 2022, where he played guitar alongside dancers of the Birmingham Royal Ballet – he expresses real enthusiasm for seeing how the event will develop, particularly after watching early rehearsals. 

“I’d never really seen anything like that before, and it was really, really good,” he says. “We’re mixing two very different audiences – our own and ballet audiences. I think that’s great, and I know from our fans there’s a lot of excitement to see what the show is like.” 

How audiences will respond to the meeting of ballet and heavy metal remains to be seen, but Iommi offers his own vision for how it will all play out. 

“It’ll be great – it’s so different, maybe we’ll get people up and shouting along,” he says, bringing laughter from the audience, while a solitary “Oh please no” from a ballet patron suggests maybe they’re getting into the spirit after all. 

Black Sabbath – The Ballet opens in Birmingham on September 23. Returns only. 

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.