The Guardian, 7th Nov 2021

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Will Tuckett makes visual poetry of love, war and the work of Adrienne Rich, while Mthuthuzeli November journeys to a glitter-coated land of showtime

By Sanjoy Roy
Sun 7 Nov 2021

What kinds of times are these? The question is the title of a poem by Adrienne Rich, and in Will Tuckett’s new chamber ballet Then or Now for Ballet Black, it finds a quiet but spellbinding response. Rich’s own poems, voiced by various actors, form one strand of the piece, their sparse lines ranging freely between sweeping generality – war, individualism, love – and concrete immediacy: coffee at breakfast, a paper plane, a cheek pressed to a window. Rather than illustrate or interpret the words, Tuckett’s staging becomes itself a kind of poetry, an anthology of scenes for eight dancers, voiceover and violin that works through suggestion rather than statement, and lets form give shape to feeling.

Some scenes are clearly based on Rich’s words. A poem on “sending love” is transposed into sweet, swift action as a nugget of imaginary energy – love – ricochets among the dancers, variously slow, high, straight or curved. More often, the choreography ties itself more loosely or more fleetingly to the words, the dancers passing in ragged flight as “dark birds of history”, for example. Or it makes its own poetics, letting its images dissolve into measured phrases of motion, shaped by limbs, weight and placement, and framed by the slow, wide steps of its violin score.

For all its beauties, its intimacy of scale, its sublimation of drama into composition, the work feels founded on big, urgent themes of war and love – that is, conflict and connection. Tuckett has placed an unexpectedly gentle finger on the unsteady pulse of our times.

Mthuthuzeli November’s The Waiting Game follows a more familiar dance-drama approach. Its three scenes hinge, somewhat precariously, on the image of a movable door. November starts crouched and cowed, tormented by voices in his head reciting his wake-work-eat-sleep routine while otherworldly pierrot-like figures emerge through the doorway, like sinister unseen forces. In the second scene, Sayaka Ichikawa comes through, coaxing him out of his ennui with impish games of pluck and peck. Finally, he makes it through the door, and finds himself in a land of showtime, glitter-coated with backing dancers, boogieing to Etta James. As dance, it’s a fun finish; as drama, quite a long shot.