The Times, 10th March 2023

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‘Coracy’s dynamic performance dominates a busy stage that vibrates with empowerment and passion.’

Ballet Black: Pioneers


By Debra Craine
10th Mar 2023

Ballet Black’s new touring programme is called Pioneers, but it could just as easily be called Activists. A sense of protest — against injustice, oppression, apathy — informs both works on this meaty double bill.

Will Tuckett’s Then or Now (2020), which starts the evening, is inspired by the activist poetry of Adrienne Rich. Set to Biber’s Passacaglia for solo violin (arranged and recorded by Daniel Pioro, who also contributes his own variations), the mood is downbeat and distant. Tuckett’s movement picks up on the poetry’s themes of love and war with a quiet lyricism and an easy flow of stage patterns, but it’s hard for the eight dancers to hold our attention when the poems are read out in voiceover — it’s distracting.

In his heartfelt world premiere Mthuthuzeli November dips into the life and legacy of Nina Simone, the American singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights campaigner. Nina: By Whatever Means tells her story, from the young girl playing piano at her church in North Carolina (she dreamt of becoming the first black female classical pianist) to the young woman playing piano and singing in nightclubs to make a living. Then comes fame in the public eye (draped in furs, pursued by paparazzi) and heartache in her personal life. The latter is effectively evoked in a disturbing duet of stylised violence for Isabela Coracy (as the adult Nina) and Alexander Fadayiro (as Nina’s abusive husband).

November has so much movement language at his disposal, from light classical and jazz swing to raw, elemental power, and he uses all his styles well. There are musical contributions from Mandisi Dyantyis and November, but it’s Simone we want to hear, and her majestic performance of Sinnerman (recorded live in New York in 1965) brings the house down. Here Coracy’s dynamic performance dominates a busy stage that vibrates with empowerment and passion.