Arts Reviews Edinburgh, 28th June 2023

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‘A combination of two very different but very powerful works make Ballet Black Pioneers a unique combination of physical dance and theatre’.

Ballet Black: Pioneers


28th June 2023

Ballet Black Pioneers is at the Festival Theatre Edinburgh for two nights only (Wed 28 and Thu 29 June) so if you are reading this review early enough there still might be time for you to get a ticket to see a production that fuses spoken word, music and dance together to raise many questions whilst also delivering messages of hope and personal empowerment.

Pioneers is made up of two very distinctive works by two exceptional choreographers – Will Tuckett “Then Or Now” (originally created in 2020) and Mthuthuzeli November “Nina: By Whatever Means”. What connects both these works together is their subject matter; two women who, each not only possessing huge amounts of creative talent in their respective works but the ability to use that talent to inspire others to take pride in their own cultural identity and stand up, speak out against the injustice and oppression that was so prevalent in society around them.

The first work Will Tuckett’s “Then Or Now” fuses music, poetry and dance together and takes one of the oldest works for solo violin, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s “Passacaglia” (circa 1676 and the last of his Rosary Sonatas) to be interpreted in movement by the dancers of Ballet Black. This powerful combination of music and movement is also set against readings of poetry by Adrienne Rich. Here works contained in “Dark Fields of The Republic” and its opening poem “What Kind of Times Are These?” give us a sense of the power that American poet, essayist, civil rights and feminist activist Adrienne Rich not only knew was in her writing, but also understood exactly how her words could not only give a voice to others but also potentially empower them too.

For some, spoken word may be a distraction to the physical movement of the dancers on stage, but here it somehow works. Here recorded poetry readings allow the very words themselves to become an interpretive part of the music (also recorded) arranged and performed by Daniel Pioro, and to interweave with William Tuckett’s choreography. Together a combination of all three give the Ballet Black company of dancers a wide spectrum of emotions to express through many diverse dance combinations and styles, themes of personal identity, and the knowledge and acceptance that whether your experiences be good, bad, or somewhere in between that life simply goes on, simply flows on its own path, often without it seems any outside predetermination towards an end goal.

The second work of this programme, Mthuthuzeli November “Nina: By Whatever Means” is simply a tribute to one of the most iconic figures of 20th century music, Nina Simone (stage name for Eunice Kathleen Waymon).

This is a very theatrical work that gives us a brief insight into the music of Nina Simone using primarily Mood Indigo (a Duke Ellington and Albany Bigard composition which featured on Nina’s 1958 “Little Girl Blue”) and “Sinnerman” from her “Best of Nina Simone” album. Here with a combination of inspired choreography and creative costume design by Jessica Cabassa we get in this performance an insight into the events that were to lead Nina Simone into political activism and her pride in both her cultural heritage and her own identity as a black woman in a then still racially divided America. Here, by whatever means, Nina was determined to pass on her strengths and her beliefs in cultural identity through her music (and any other means available to her) to anyone who would listen and in the process hopefully give them the strength to stand up and be counted too.

This work has everything that you could look for in contemporary dance – it is full of emotion, power and energy and the jazz/blues influenced scenes fused with later African dance influenced rhythms and movements are works of art in their own right. This was a very individual and powerful performance by senior artist Isabela Coracy who has both the interpretive dance skills and dramatic theatrical abilities to bring her portrayal of Nina Simone to life on stage.

Underneath this leading story of a powerful woman not afraid to stand up for her rights as an individual person we also get some idea of the tensions that were always there between Nina Simone’s strict Methodist upbringing and her world as a jazz performer playing “the Devil’s music”. Nina Simone had an at times turbulent personal life, and glimpses of those moments are also expressed in powerful and inspired choreography.

A combination of two very different but very powerful works make Ballet Black Pioneers a unique combination of physical dance and theatre with a message that still needs to be told, words that still need to be spoken, as injustice and intolerance in their many varied forms across the world are sadly still very prevalent in our society today.