In 1970, when Black Sabbath released its debut album, critics panned the band’s sound, which would become known as heavy metal. The band (and the genre) soon amassed a dedicated fan base, eventually receiving widespread renown.
Now, the group’s hometown—Birmingham, England—is honoring it in an unexpected way: ballet.
“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,” said Carlos Acosta, director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, in a statement earlier this year.
Black Sabbath: The Ballet opened at the Birmingham Hippodrome last month, and it has runs scheduled in London and Plymouth through late October. The full-length ballet features eight re-orchestrated Black Sabbath songs, including classics like “Iron Man” and “War Pigs,” as well as new music inspired by the band.
“It’s about honoring the rawness, the irregularity of the music,” composer and conductor Christopher Austin tells the Guardian’s Michael Hann. “The structures of Sabbath songs are incredible.”
The ballet has the blessing of all the members of Black Sabbath, including Tony Iommi, the band’s guitarist.
“I’ve never been to a ballet in my life,” he tells the Telegraph’s Neil McCormick. “But Sabbath never closed ourselves to other music. If you want to make something original, you’ve got to do things outside of the box. And this is right out of the box!”
At the ballet’s opening night, Iommi made a surprise appearance, joining the dancers on stage to play guitar for the song “Paranoid.”
The show unfolds over three acts, each with a different choreographer. Per the Guardian, “At times there are voiceovers—Iommi and Sharon Osbourne, wife of singer Ozzy, have both been interviewed for it—but the soundtrack is a continuous piece of music.”
Each act explores various themes. The first act, for instance, focuses on how Birmingham’s busy, noisy factories helped birth the sound of heavy metal, writes the New York Times’ Alex Marshall.
In 1965, Iommi, then 17, was injured in an accident at a Birmingham sheet metal factory, tearing off two fingertips on his right hand—a moment captured in the show. Iommi loosened the strings on his guitar so he could play it using the makeshift fingertips he created from soap bottle caps. These adaptations helped cement the band’s signature sound.
Austin worked hard to capture that unique sound in his orchestrations. “You have to really get inside the material—there’s so much going on under the bonnet,” he tells the Telegraph. “You disassemble the sound and think about what each component is.”
Beyond the unusual soundtrack, the choreography also takes inspiration from heavy metal. Dancers may pirouette on pointe, but they also stage dive. They perform moves like headbanging, air guitar and moshing—and occasionally, they even belt out a lyric.
“It’s a very ambitious project,” says choreographer Pontus Lidberg to the Telegraph. “In a broad sense, ballet—like heavy metal—is known for its clichés, but you can dance to anything in different ways.”
That ambition has paid off. Most of the upcoming shows are sold out, and more than two-thirds of tickets went to new visitors, as Acosta tells the Guardian.
“It’s the most successful show we’ve ever had, a show that didn’t exist when we sold the tickets,” he adds. “This is just one of many things we’re bringing into the repertoire, but as long as we keep connecting, that’s what I want. I want a company that is energetic, that is dynamic, that is not yesterday, that is now.”