Salterton Arts Review, 18th November 2023

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Ballet Black: Pioneers

November 12th 2023

My last two visits to the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre have been such a contrast.  The previous one was a dance-theatre adaptation of a play I saw in the West End, by Royal Ballet Principal Alexander Campbell.  This visit was my second time seeing Ballet Black, for their mixed bill Pioneers.
I really think Ballet Black are absolutely wonderful.  Founded by Cassa Pancho in 2001, Ballet Black celebrates dancers of Black and Asian descent.  And more than that, they make me question each time I see them what I take for granted about ballet.  This can be the big or the small things: diversity in bodies and skin tones being the most obvious.  But also unexpected pairings of men and women rather than typical man + woman pas de deux.  Or even a dancer wearing glasses on the stage.  Doesn’t sound revolutionary, but my friend and I both noticed it.  Ballet Black encourage you think about why you take certain things for granted and perhaps examine some assumptions or unconscious biases.  As well as providing a wonderful evening of entertaining dance.  Long may it last.
So on to the evening’s programme.  Pioneers consists of two works, both co-commissioned by the Barbican.  The first, Then or Now, combines ballet, music and the poetry of Adrienne Rich.  The second, Nina: By Whatever Means is a celebration in dance of the life of Nina Simone.

Adrienne Rich And Nina Simone
The works are incredibly different, and thus show off Ballet Black’s range.  My pick of the evening (even though it’s the one I’ve seen before) was the first, Then or Now.  It has a lyrical beauty which is incredibly moving. Adrienne Rich was an American poet, essayist and feminist. After first following a traditional path in life, she found herself radicalised by motherhood and later her sexuality. But her poetry was politically engaged rather than purely personal, and she wrote a lot in particular about white feminism, intersectionality, and racism and homophobia.
In Then or Now, eight members of Ballet Black dance to a score which includes poems from Rich’s collection Dark Fields of the Republic. It’s exquisite. The dance sequences to individual poems refer back to some of the key themes in Rich’s work: love, war, community and individualism, among others. The set and lighting is as simple as it can be, the dancers appear to wear rehearsal outfits in muted, natural tones. It’s uplifting and powerful, and also a real ensemble work, with all dancers given time and space to show off their abilities.
Nina: By Whatever Means is a totally different kind of work. Choreographed by company dancer Mthuthuzeli November, it is a costumed, biopic sort of affair. We see Nina Simone as a child developing a passion for music, as a young woman making her way in the world, playing in clubs, surviving domestic violence, and finally in all her glory in an extended performance of Sinnerman taken from a live recording. The main issue I had was that I missed an awful lot of it: for a touring production playing in different venues, it’s perhaps not wise to have so much take place stage right and upstage right. This aside, Nina: By Whatever Means is a powerful work featuring a passionate central performance by Isabela Coracy.