‘Ballet Black let Nina Simone’s passion, rage and glory ring out loud and clear’
Ballet Black: Pioneers
By Marianka Swain
10th Mar 2023
After a slow start, Mthuthuzeli November’s paean to the great singer builds magnificently, while Will Tuckett’s Then or Now is pure poetry
Ballet Black has always been a company on a mission, and this latest double bill effectively uses the work of two trailblazing American artists to help articulate it. Adrienne Rich’s activist poetry features in Will Tuckett’s 2020 piece Then or Now, while Mthuthuzeli November pays tribute to the incomparable Nina Simone in his new work Nina: By Whatever Means.
It’s Rich’s words that ring out at the start, and linger throughout: “What kind of times are these?”. Her 1991 poem feels just as incisive in addressing contemporary anxieties, particularly the sinister line about a regime “making people disappear”. But Tuckett isn’t confined by specifics. Instead, he works in conversation with Rich via impressionistic, neo-classical movement to encapsulate big emotions and themes. Chairs become versatile props: dancers fight over them, or hold them, legs facing out, like weapons.
There’s tenderness here, too, particularly in a section where the performers “send love” by throwing imaginary bundles to one another. And Tuckett’s restraint draws you in: you find yourself leaning forward to catch every slap of pointe shoe punctuating Rich’s verse, or each exquisite note of violinist Daniel Pioro’s playing of von Biber’s Passacaglia, while David Plater catches the dancers in moody shafts of amber light.
It’s a true company effort, but Helga Paris-Morales, with her elegant poise and neverending extensions, is a majestic standout. Lifted aloft by two men, she flips between them and weaves through the air like a darting needle. Rich and absorbing, this really is poetry in motion – and it instils in you the importance of listening.
November’s dance drama is a messier affair. It begins frustratingly, with an unimaginative trudge through the singer-songwriter’s early life: a little girl learning the piano, then graduating to jazz clubs. But Isabela Coracy’s Simone is too often stranded, static, behind a microphone. There’s also excess scenery: dancers are constantly wheeling doors around, or tripping over an unnecessary rug, while the civil rights struggle is reduced to signs held aloft demanding integration. Hardly the devastating force of Strange Fruit.
But a lip-synced Simone speech lauding black beauty and culture connects powerfully with Ballet Black’s ethos. And it all comes together in a knockout climax set to “Sinner Man”, which, thankfully, tosses aside the literal biography. Instead Coracy, in a vivid yellow dress, takes charge; whether furiously clapping in counterpoint to the song, or fixing the audience with a confrontational stare, she holds us to account, before hurling herself into the Revivalist-style frenzy of movement – mining the passion, rage, glory and soul of Simone’s music.