Theatre Reviews North, 1st November 2023

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“By the conclusion they had the Lowry audience on their feet with delight.”

Ballet Black: Pioneers


By Robert Beale

Wed 1st Nov 2023

Ballet Black is a very special company – just nine dancers on stage, almost all of them working flat out through the whole of a demanding double bill, and technically at the highest level of classical dance.

They’re also capable of delivering in totally different styles, from purest ensemble movement to story-telling ballet, where acting ability is as important as dance ability. Their two programmes, celebrating their 21st season, demonstrates that to the full.

Everyone’s a soloist in a small group such as this, but they do have some outstanding performers – particularly Helga Paris-Morales and Isabela Coracy, who take leading roles in both pieces on this bill.

Will Tuckett of the Royal Ballet created the first, Then or Now, in 2020, and it was seen in a few theatres in the autumn of that year, but now it’s getting a second lease of life. It’s a high-minded work based on words from Dark Fields of the Republic by American modern poet and activist Adrienne Rich, with music from the solo violin of Daniel Pioro. I find poetry as an accompaniment to dance often a bit of a mental overload, as you’re trying to take in verbal and visual concepts at the same time. Tuckett’s choreography doesn’t seek to expound every word of the texts anyway, which are read clearly but sometimes in rather passionless style by recorded voices; they alternate with recorded improvisations by Pioro based on Biber’s Passacaglia of 1676, and when the words have fallen silent and the original Biber is heard alone, the work takes off as dance.

Tuckett is constantly inventive, moving his dancers through solos, pas de deux, ensembles and ever-changing patterns (often built around a simple group of chairs on the stage), but there are little episodes with a scenarios of their own, such as the grim recollections of Deportations, and the playful and very enjoyable Love (… sends it), whose comic irony could hardly be missed.

The second work of the evening is NINA: By Whatever Means, created by Ballet Black’s own dancer-choreographer Mthuthuzeli November, about the black singer Nina Simone. This is a narrative ballet in the tradition championed by Northern Ballet Theatre in the years when Christopher Gable led it, and those who remember it may notice that one of the outstanding NBT dancers of that era, Charlotte Broom, is now Ballet Black’s rehearsal director.

We see Simone (born Eunice Waymon) in her childhood and youth in North Carolina, learning her music in church, moving to playing piano in clubs in New York and finally making it – but enduring an abusive marriage relationship despite her fame, and also lending her powerful support to the Civil Rights movement.

Mthuthuzeli November skilfully uses three main music tracks to sustain the whole story – one with the voices of the Zolani Youth Choir from his native township in South Africa, plus those of Ballet Black’s dancers, in God be with you till we meet again; Nina Simone’s own version of Mood Indigo; and the last her O Sinnerman from a live recording.

The work catches the imagination and the dancers tell the story brilliantly. Isabela Coracy becomes Simone with passion and charisma, and there is eloquent movement in all the solo roles. By the conclusion they had the Lowry audience on their feet with delight.