Broadway Baby, 30th June 2023

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‘The piece becomes mesmeric and creates a meditative space to contemplate the poetry’

Ballet Black: Pioneers


By Stephanie Green
30th June 2023

Pioneers: Ballet Black is an inspired pairing of dance pieces, both in terms of subject matter and in their exploratory choreography. Then or Now choreographed by William Tuckett celebrates Adrienne Rich the Modernist poet and Nina: By Whatever Means by Mthuthuzeli November celebrates Nina Simone, jazz singer, songwriter and pianist, both iconic Feminist figures who broke the mould of their art forms, forging new expressions of rawness and honesty and were both also concerned with Civil Rights, justice and equality.

Then or Now is exquisite, a sophisticated, elegant interweaving of three different strands – violin, spoken voice overs of Rich’s poetry from Dark Fields of the Republic and abstract dance all of which follow their own paths but are united by rhythm. There is an improvisatory feel to all three and in fact that is how they were each created. The recorded improvised violin composed and played by Daniel Pioro plays on notes taken from Biber’s Passacaglia (1676), the dance moves, superbly fluid classical choreography blended with contemporary expressivity does not merely imitate the subject matter of the poetry but was improvised around the music. There is no mere imitation of the subject matter except in one section where sending love was mimed – a segue which maybe cheapened the piece but added variety. Simple lighting and practice costumes mirror the ascetic feel. Overall the piece becomes mesmeric and creates a meditative space to contemplate the poetry, for instance, that we now are too concerned with the ‘I’ – personal poetry and forget the importance of ‘we’ which connects with community in these times of the ‘dark bird of history.’

In contrast, Mthuthuzeli November’s Nina: By Whatever Means is Afro-ballet fusion, a narrative piece with both poignancy and punch, overtly activist. Sadly in these times of racial prejudice, the message is still relevant. Isabela Coracy’s aggressive stare at the audience as she stands front of stage by a microphone on her first appearance in a silver dress and turban as Simone is unforgettable, followed by her superb dancing. It is not just a list of Simone’s greatest hits (which would have gone down a treat, of course) but deals with her difficult life, the music composed by November and Mandisi Dyantyis using only Simone’s Mood Indigo and Sinnerman. Following Simone’s early piano lessons as a child (a section which is slow and goes on far too long), it moves through lively gospel (recorded voices of the Zolani Youth Choir) and a brilliant jazz club scene, scope for colourful costumes and funky moves, with Simone crouching over the piano. Later scenes of civil disturbance, shown by the ensemble in scary shroud-like robes running in circles holding placards about ‘Segregation’ and ‘Alabama Brutality’. The most visceral section was the raw anger of the abusive relationship with Simone’s husband. The show builds to a crescendo of pounding bare feet, with the bent backs of African dance to Sinnerman ending on a positive note of joy and power.

Founded by Cassa Pancho, Ballet Black is now in its 21st year and going strong.