Independent, 10th March 2023

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‘Isabela Coracy lights up the stage as Nina Simone’

Ballet Black: Pioneers


By Zoe Anderson
Fri 10 Mar 2023

Isabela Coracy lights up Ballet Black’s new work, NINA: By Whatever Means. This danced biopic of Nina Simone is driven by Coracy’s superb presence, by the imposing strength and sweep of her movements. In the carriage of her head, the set of her mouth, she catches Simone’s poise and her searing awareness: of injustice, of her own mission to change, of the music that flows through her.

Created by company dancer Mthuthuzeli November, NINA: By Whatever Means starts with Simone’s famous appearance at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival, then loops back to her childhood. We see young Sienne Adotey taking her first piano lessons, with Sayaka Ichikawa as her inspiring teacher. As she grows up, the story turns from church celebrations to 1960s jazz clubs, on to protest and power.

November creates lively group sequences, but the biographical approach can plod. A flurry of waved placards tells us that we’ve reached the Civil Rights movement, but lacks dramatic weight.

The ballet is strongest when November steps away from his timeline to give space to Simone’s own art and words. Lip syncing can look artificial, but this company perform it with complete conviction and spontaneity. And the layering of movement and statement is even better. As we hear Simone say that Black people are beautiful, we see Coracy dancing: on pointe, fist raised in salute. She’s claiming the space she deserves – as Simone, and as part of a company that was founded to give a platform to artists of Black and Asian descent.

It’s a platform to cherish. Started in 2001, Ballet Black has a proud history of commissioned works, and of terrific dancing. This double bill shows a fine new generation of performers coming through. It’s a small company, so everybody has a chance to shine. And they remind you of the pleasure of dancing: their connection with the audience, the glow with which they polish their steps.

A revival of William Tuckett’s 2020 Then or Now opens with a solo for Helga Paris-Morales, moving with flowing line and elegance. Tuckett layers poems by Adrienne Rich with violinist Daniel Pioro’s new variations on a theme by Biber.

Sometimes the steps directly reflect the poetry – a mention of four men, images of everybody “sending love”. At other times, the dance flows alongside. It’s an approach that can lose momentum, but the vividness of the dancing keeps it on track.