Ballet Black: Pioneers
4th May 2023
Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black celebrates their 21st season by returning to Birmingham Rep with a double bill of dance inspired by the voices of poet Adrienne Rich and singer Nina Simone. The two works treat their inspirations very differently and yet both share the words of the two women and give us space to reflect on what they have to say for us today.
Then or Now, choreographed by Birmingham-born Will Tuckett, is set to poems from Rich’s collection Dark Fields of the Republic. Beginning with the poem What Kind of Times Are These, the work feels very much an exploration of personal versus universal and enables us to see Rich’s verse in a different light.
One of the strengths of her poetry is its evocative imagery and Tuckett uses this to push forward the choreography so that a slight hand flutter or a glance to another dancer conveys so much more than just that movement. His choreography demands great technical ability and precision from the dancers with complex lifts and pointe work and yet the company rise to the challenge with apparent ease.Read by different voices, Rich’s poems echo around the stage but they also interplay with a score created and played by Daniel Pioro. Based on a 17th-century piece for solo violin by Henirich Ignaz Franz von Biber, it picks up seamlessly where the words end, giving a resonance to Rich’s ideas and Tuckett’s dance.
Into the second half, we move to a narrative piece created by Ballet Black dancer Mthuthuzeli November which reflects on the life and times of singer Nina Simone. Beginning towards the end of her career, we then switch back to her life story, beginning as a child playing the piano and culminating in her stepping forward as a force in the civil rights movement.
Nina: By Whatever Means is set to a kaleidoscope of music composed by November with Mandisi Dyantyis with touches of gospel, blues and jazz as well as songs performed by Simone. Throughout the work we see one constant in Simone’s life, the piano – she learns to play it as a child, makes her living in bars playing piano, turns to it when her love life collapses and thunders out her tunes on it as she fights for black power.
Isabela Coracy is both a heartbroken and tragic Simone but also a strong and determined woman who will fight her corner with words, with physical battles and with song. By pinpointing pivotal moments in her life, November’s work brings us a multi-faceted and vibrant Simone.
Together the two works show us the versatility of the Ballet Black dancers as well as underscoring the company’s reputation for creating and performing innovative and thought-provoking works.