Jonathan Gray sees Ballet Black's Pioneer programme in London
|Title||PIONEERS – “Then or Now“, “NINA: By Whatever Means”|
|Venue||Barbican Centre, London|
|Date||9 March 2023|
Ballet Black's latest double bill, now on at London's Barbican Theatre in advance of a UK tour, is given the title PIONEERS. It not only reflects the content of the programme, but sums up the ethos of the company itself. Founded by artistic director Cassa Pancho in 2001 to showcase Black talent in classical ballet, Ballet Black has gone from strength to strength despite a criminal lack of official state funding, until a few years back, from Arts Council England. Along the way, Pancho has attracted such highly regarded choreographers as Richard Alston, Michael Corder, Shobana Jeyasingh, Annabelle Lopez-Ochoa and Arthur Pita to make works on the company, and Ballet Black has won numerous awards. Everything about the company is admirable, and it was wonderful to see such a diverse and appreciative audience at the Barbican on 9 March for the official press night.
The main event of the programme was NINA: By Whatever Means, a new ballet, based on the life of the singer-songwriter, musician and Civil Rights activist Nina Simone, by company dancer Mthuthuzeli November, who has proved in the past to be a talented choreographer. Using songs sung by Simone, as well as music composed by Mandisi Dyantyis and November himself, the ballet starts with an evocation of Simone's concert at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. As Simone, Isabel Coracy – the epitome of elegance – wearing a white evening gown, turban and high heels, shows the audience a woman at the height of her musical prowess as a performer; this makes for a magnetic beginning.
In the early sections of the ballet, however, I felt November tried too hard and too literally to tell Simone's life story. We see the child Eunice Waymon (the wonderfully assured Sienne Adotey from the Ballet Black School), playing the piano at home and for the congregation of her mother's church. She is introduced to the piano teacher Muriel Massinovitch (Sayaka Ichikawa), who recognises the child's talent, encourages her to continue with her lessons, and eventually gives her money to further her studies. These episodes are described with naturalistic acting gestures, interspersed with some danced moments, but although November skilfully prepares the audience for a depiction of Simone's adult life, it takes too long for the dancing to take off. When it does, however, the choreography is focused, intense and confident.
Waymon had intended to become a classical musician, but racial prejudice in the USA during the 1950s meant she could only earn a living by playing and singing at jazz clubs and bars (she took the stage name “Nina Simone” to prevent her mother finding out she was playing “devil's music”). Coracy, with poise and a huge stage presence, essays the development and growing success of Simone's career with fierce pride. Now wearing pointe shoes, Simone dances passionately with her husband, Andrew Stroud (Alexander Fadayiro), in a searing pas de deux that eventually turns into a battle when his jealousy gets out of control. The violence of this encounter leads directly to the final section of the ballet, set to Simone's version of “Sinnerman”, in which draped figures (looking almost as if they have stepped out of a ballet from the Romantic age) hold up placards protesting racism and supporting Black power. With the appearance of these spirits, the choreography changes from being descriptive to expressionistic, with Simone seemingly swamped by the ghostly figures, yet rising above them. It reminded me of Maya Angelou's poem Still I Rise.
Inspired by the increasing pace and intensity of the music and November's choreography, Coracy's character grows in strength and stature, becoming a symbol of authority and pride, and dominating the stage at every moment until, at the very end, Simone shouts out “That's it!” It is a riveting performance from Coracy, a career-defining moment that is also a compelling portrait of a compelling artist.
If NINA gives the audience drama, then William Tuckett's Then or Now, originally made for Ballet Black in 2020, offers them the cool, lucid realms of classical ballet. Danced to the spoken poetry of Adrienne Rich, as well as music by Daniel Pioro inspired by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, the dancers perform in a space framed by chairs. Tuckett draws on a very British vocabulary of classical dance that captures the cadences and phrases of Rich's poems. Never literal, yet somehow managing to suggest the essence of the spoken words, the choreography draws out the best from the dancers, all of whom are given an opportunity to take centre stage. It was also a wonderful opportunity to observe the talents of Ballet Black's latest recruits, Helga Paris-Morales and Taraja Hudson, both performing Tuckett's choreography beautifully. I look forward to seeing more of these talented women in the future.
Go to www.balletblack.co.uk for dates and venues on Ballet Black's forthcoming tour.
Jonathan Gray was editor of Dancing Times from 2008 to 2022.
He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. He was on the Curatorial Staff of the Theatre Museum, London, from 1989 to 2005, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet's productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times and The Guardian, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.