The British Blacklist, 15th Match 2023

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Ballet Black returns to London with a layered double-bill, Pioneers, on the Barbican Stage.

Ballet Black: Pioneers

By Mojola Akinyemi
15th March 2023

The first act, Then Or Now, choreographed by William Tuckett, works closely alongside the poetry of Adrianne Rich (1929-2012). The stage is sparse, save for a chair for each dancer, as they sit, stand, or utilise them as props during the performance. The themes of the first act, as befitting the writings of the scholar and activist Rich, ranges from themes of identity, combat, and love. The poetry was punctuated by Daniel Pioro’s performances on the classical violin, in a manner that supplemented the voice over recordings, then later became the primary audial focus.

While the work was affecting, at points, the exact matching of the movement to the poetry felt overstated. As the poetry tailed off and the music took charge, I found that without the anchor of Rich’s work, it was hard to follow a narrative (if there was one to follow). I also questioned whether there was a way to go further in the reimagining of what ballet could be, considering the notion of Ballet Black beyond the casting.

The second half, NINA: By Whatever Means, answered my questions and more in its engaging depiction of Nina Simone’s life. From a young Eunice Waymon (Sienne Adotey) learning the piano in North Carolina, to the musical icon being bombarded by paparazzi, to a fierce political activist who used her voice as a vehicle for change. The set, also by choreographer Mthuthuzeli November, flowed seamlessly into the various stages of Simone’s life. I was particularly enthralled by the costuming (Jessica Cabassa), which incorporated fabrics of fur, velvet, silk, and perfectly captured and elevated the 60s mod style, as well as utilising kente-cloth inspired patterns.

Isabela Coracy is dazzling as Nina Simone, believable in her performance as the gifted and passionate musical artist, attempting to work in a life fraught with tension from all sides. One of those would be her abusive husband Andrew Stroud (Alexander Fadayiro) who duets Coracy in a disturbing depiction of his marital violence. Another would be racial tensions of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, with voiceovers from Martin Luther King Jr, the smashing of glass, and the raising of fists, and Nina Simone standing at the centre of it all.

The movement, incorporating elements of swing, jive and jazz, worked in tandem with the music to move beyond the limitations that one would place on traditional expectations of ballet. Never did I think I could see a ballet performed to the music of Nina Simone, and yet November and composer Mandisi Dyantyis achieve this beautifully, reaching a zenith with the riveting performance to ‘Sinnerman’ (from its original 1965 recording) that well earned a closing standing ovation.