‘Pioneer is something special: both a celebration of legacy and an imperative to action’.
Ballet Black: Pioneers
By Catherine Flutsch
27th April 2023
Ballet Black, the ballet company committed to diversity in classical ballet, is back with its UK tour, Pioneers. Pioneers is made up of two dance pieces, Then or Now, choreographed by William Tuckett, and Nina: By Whatever Means, choreographed by Mthuthuzeli November. Both pieces celebrate courageous action in a time of political turbulence.
What could be more relevant?
In Then or Now, Tuckett has blended recordings of Adrienne Rich’s poetry, music by Baroque composer, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, together with his own choreography. The dancers performed Tuckett’s choreography exquisitely. To me, though, the quality of the choreography didn’t stand up to the power of the poetry or the hauntingly beautiful violin recording by Daniel Pioro.
I also experienced each element – poetry, dance, music – as a slight distraction from the other. However, I know that other audience members felt differently, and enjoyed the interplay between the different elements.
What was not in contention was the extraordinary skill of the dancers – in particular Brazilian dancer José Alves, who manages to combine exceptional athleticism with a kind of ethereal lightness that makes him dance as though he has wings. What a special treat it was to watch a dancer of Alves’ calibre.
In the second piece, Nina: By Whatever Means, November draws on his remarkable skill as a story teller to create a love letter to one of the greatest jazz singers that has ever lived, Nina Simone. The choreography, combined with Simone’s music, and an original sound track, celebrates Simone’s life, her talent in classical piano, her voice and her courageous social activism.
There were some utterly magical moments in this piece, particularly toward the end, when Simone, superbly played by Isabela Coracy, stands proud and defiant among scenes of violence and social upheaval. Kudos to costume designer Jessica Cabassa for creating such minimal, yet powerful costumes that enhanced the choreography, creating tableaux akin to Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment.
Coracy’s proud and confrontational performance transformed this piece from honouring the courageous social activism of the past to a rallying cry. In Oxford, a city built on slavery – there can be nothing more appropriate for the privileged audience to experience.
Pioneer is something special: both a celebration of legacy and an imperative to action.