The Black Sabbath ballet shows Sabbath are still pushing heavy metal into unchartered territories after half a century

Black Sabbath - The Ballet isn't just a meeting of worlds, it's a celebration of one of metal's most iconic groups

Riku Ito Miki Mitzutani Birmingham Royal Ballet, Black Sabbath - The Ballet
(Image: © Johan Persson)

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Over half a century since they released their groundbreaking debut album, Black Sabbath are still helping heavy metal break new ground. Black Sabbath - The Ballet isn't the first time that the worlds of heavy metal and ballet have collided, but does seem to mark the first instance where an entirely new ballet has been created from the catalogue of a single artist, working directly in symbiosis.  

With input from Sabs themselves and "Metal Curator" Lisa Meyer, director Carlos Acosta ensures that the production feels like a loving ode to not only the story of Black Sabbath, but how their influence and legacy has spread out into the wider world, offering undoubtedly the most unique heavy metal experience you'll find this year. 

The first act - Heavy Metal Ballet - is likely what you'd expect from the fusion of styles, dancers of the Birmingham Royal Ballet showing off graceful and astonishing physical feats while an expert score from composers Marko Nyberg and Christopher Austin sees snippets of original Sabbath tracks underpinned by a live orchestra. 

It's here that Black Sabbath - The Ballet feels most essential for metal fans; like their own rendition of Metallica's iconic S&M, the fusion of orchestral elements and Sabbath compositions is utterly exhilarating - and somewhat surprising. While the likes of Solitude lend themselves nicely to gentle string melodies, it's incredibly impressive to hear Iron Man's iconic thump turned into a soft symphony. 

That's not to say there's a lack of heft, however. This is Heavy Metal Ballet after all, and the version of War Pigs hints towards the band's origins as outcasts from late-60s psychedelia and flower power, as strings turn discordant and unwieldy like a bad-LSD trip. Similarly, an immense and percussive rendition of Paranoid sees guitarist Marc Hayward stride out onto the stage to play the iconic riff, looking like some NWOBHM-fossil that has been chiselled out of some tar-covered iceberg that has kept him perfectly preserved since the late 70s. 

If Act I was all about the dancers and ballet itself, then Act II is all about the band. Tales of Iommi's fateful industrial accident - told by the man himself in gory detail - are matched by visuals of a light-up fretboard, Iommi stating twice that "they told me, 'your playing days are over'" highlighting metal's first act of rebellion. Elsewhere, clips of Sabbath's members - as well as Sharon Osbourne, who attended the premiere of the show on Saturday - flesh out the rest of their story, but also add notes of levity. "We spent more on cocaine than the recording budget," Iommi deadpans at one point. "And we spent £80,000 on that!" 

Of course, while the band may pull focus some, the dancers still remain key to it all. One incredibly impressive feat sees two performers locked together in a kiss as they pull off ever-more impressive moves, never breaking contact. It's a stunning display and feels like a perfect metaphor for how well the worlds of ballet and heavy metal are conjoined throughout the performance. 

As before, composer Sun Keting leads an orchestra through astonishing renditions and reinterpretations of classic Sabbath tracks. Perhaps most impressive is how faithfully Bill Ward's unique drum-fills are matched; never replicated directly, the orchestra's drummer nonetheless captures the clattering, freewheeling style Ward brought to Sabbath that made him so distinct from his 1970s contemporaries. 

Marc Hayward and artists from Birmingham Royal Ballet, Black Sabbath - The Ballet

(Image credit: Johan Persson)

Act III brings the whole thing home; dancers don Sabbath shirts and lead a massive celebration that embraces Black Sabbath's place not just as the progenitors of heavy metal, but as Birmingham's most iconic cultural export. 

But the biggest surprise - and undoubtedly the thing that gets fans most vocally excited - is the appearance of Tony Iommi as a one-off special guest. Trading riffs with returning guitarist Marc Hayward, the show's crescendo is an all-singing, all-dancing spectacle that gets the audience on their feet and clapping along, a chorus of voices singing iconic Sabbath lines closing the night on a rapturous and celebratory note. 

A resounding success in melding worlds together, Black Sabbath - The Ballet is a stunning spectacle well worth watching for fans of metal and ballet alike. And who knows - by its end maybe those camps aren't so disparate as they might have first seemed. 

Black Sabbath - The Ballet runs at Birmingham's Hippodrome from September 28 to 30, then Theatre Royal Plymouth October 12 - 14 and Sadler's Wells in London from October 18 - October 21. For more details, visit the Birmingham Royal Ballet official website

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.