Gramilano, 12th November 2023

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Ballet Black: Pioneers

By Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel

November 12th 2023

Sold-out performances for Ballet Black’s Pioneers (16-19 November) at the Linbury Theatre (Royal Opera House) signalled the presence of rising stars: Mthuthuzeli November‘s choreography in Nina: By Whatever Means, senior artist Isabela Coracy for her portrayal of singer-songwriter Simone, and their celebration of global black histories. Created earlier this year, November’s Barbican co-commissioned work about Simone brings together creatives including the long-standing lighting designer David Plater (costumes), Jessica Cabassa for costumes, together with the renowned South African jazz composer Mandisi Dyantyis and the Zolani Youth Choir, based in November’s hometown of Ashton in the Western Cape (South Africa). November is also credited with composing parts of the score, a musical narrative of Simone’s first album Little Girl Blue (1958) and recordings from a live performance from 1965, Dyantyis’ jazz compositions, and a piano motif that travelled through the 40-minute ballet.

Typical of November’s growing body of work, the narrative in the ballet is driven by racial and social activism: Simone/Coracy enters the stage to announce that this will be her last performance. Rewinding time, the ballet truncates Simone’s interest in music: her early life and growing up in poverty and also the Methodist church in North Carolina, and leaving home to pursue her studies in music at Juilliard. The use of the piano playing by the dancers has a mixed effect: it worked for the older two ‘Ninas’ but November could have explored the idea of ‘playing the right keys’ as a metaphor for tonal shifts in the movements for the youngest Nina.

The church scene is short, punchy, and reminiscent of Ailey’s Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham (in the iconic Revelations). Indeed, the first part of the ballet appears to be more like a pastiche of moments and movements; it is also the ‘setting the scene’ part of the ballet which lacks the typical tones of November’s choreographic identity. Nevertheless, as the dancers move into the club scene (I suspect the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City), the mood and the rest of the ballet shifts into a different gear. The dancers in this scene include the next rising star of Ballet Black, Puerto Rican/American Helga Paris-Morales who plays the teenage Nina quite exquisitely in the fleeting moment of narrative. Simone/Coracy meets Don Ross (‘the husband’ played by senior artist Ebony Thomas). The relationship between Simone and Ross spotlights November’s effective and intricate understanding in shaping a duet which rapidly transitions into marriage and then estrangement in quick succession. Thomas’ versatility in moving through different characters in the ballet, like a number of other dancers do within the work, reminds audiences that established, small-to-mid-scale touring companies survive on the adaptability of their dancers.

Ballets should finish on a crescendo, not peter out, and November’s ballet does just that. The highlight of the final section danced to Simone’s interpretation of ‘Sinnerman’ (or ‘Sinner man’ as Ailey referred to it in his masterpiece) is just a masterclass in honing the narrative of the powerful leading lady (Caracy, as Simone, revels in her strength to make Black people heard) and the fluid, ghost-like dancers who pulse through the rhythms of the iconic African American traditional song interpreted by Simone in 1965. Of course, November’s ballet capitalises on ‘Sinnerman’, which Simone sung at the end of every performance in Greenwich Village. In the ballet, Coracy rallies the audience to join in the pursuit of civil rights.

November’s ballet reminds audiences of the global issues still prevalent around race. It’s a cue that racism should be starved of oxygen and that Black women like Simone, Coracy, and Paris-Morales, have a much-deserved seat at the table. As Simone reminded her audience in 1965 (November does well to remind us too, in 2023): “To me we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world… Black people. I mean that in every sense”. And November knows how to carve out his message, as Simone once said, “by whatever means necessary”. Like Simone’s political use of music, November uses dance as a political message. Ballet Black, November and the dancers are themselves pioneers – they play the right notes to celebrate Black culture, and their audiences know, and appreciate, that!