‘An uplifting tribute to Nina Simone’
Ballet Black: Pioneers
By Sarah Crompton
Sun 12 Mar 2023
Two powerful women, each with a unique voice, are the inspiration for this new double bill from the redoubtable Ballet Black, a company that increasingly defines itself by the unique and intelligent character of the work it performs.
The premiere is Nina: By Whatever Means, choreographed by company dancer Mthuthuzeli November, a tribute to the music and passion of Nina Simone. It begins at the Montreux jazz festival in 1976, a point where the complications of the singer’s life had begun to impinge on the wonder of her music, then takes us back to the beginning, when the child Nina (charmingly played by Sienne Adotey) first began to dream of being a classical pianist.
From there, November whisks us through Simone’s life in a series of vignettes, always based around that piano that she caresses like a lover. He has a gift for finding movement that paints vivid pictures: the young Nina swaying in rapture with her piano teacher; the gospel singers of her childhood church; couples dancing in relaxed unison as she begins to make her way in clubs, skittering across the stage to Mood Indigo.
The score, which combines music by Mandisi Dyantyis and November himself with Simone’s own songs, and features the Zolani Youth Choir, sweeps things along. Some of the choreography feels confining: Nina, embodied with real power by Isabela Coracy, dances with her abusive husband (played by Alexander Fadayiro) in a tiny carpeted corner of the space. Yet by the end, when the energy of Sinnerman sweeps across the stage, the action is as uplifting as Simone in all her glory.
The evening opens with Will Tuckett’s Then Or Now, from 2020. It’s a tribute to the poet Adrienne Rich and inspired by words from her collection Dark Fields of the Republic, which form part of the score. It’s a fine piece, hinting at the nature of individual happiness set against community need, full of watchful glances and delicate steps that sometimes soar and sometimes seem pinned down with weight. The dancers gleam, as always.