Now in its 21st year, Ballet Black’s repertoire is an enviable collection of specially commissioned work, and director Cassa Pancho is not afraid to take risks when bringing in new pieces.
Pioneers, the company’s latest double bill, opens with Will Tuckett’s 2020 Then or Now, his third work for Ballet Black and the perfect showcase for the dancers' classical technique.
It is danced to a soundtrack which intersperses poems by the American activist Adrienne Rich with Von Biber’s Passacaglia for solo violin, adapted and played by Daniel Pioro.
Cassa Pancho's Ballet Black in Will Tuckett's Then or Now. Dancers: Sayaka Ichikawa and Mthuthuzeli November. Photo: © Bill Cooper.
Words and movement exist on parallel tracks: Then or Now is a collection of abstract dances, forming constantly shifting patterns of solos, duets and ensembles, performed on a stage naked except for a number of white plastic chairs, all unobtrusively lit by David Platter.
The last time I saw Then or Now, despite the quality of the entire cast, all dressed in simple practice costumes by designer Yukiko Tsukamoto, it was difficult to take my eyes away from the company’s undoubted star, Cira Robinson. She is now retired, but into the lead role stepped a new Ballet Black recruit, the American-trained Puerto Rican Helga Paris-Morales.
Paris-Morales is a beautiful dancer: with clear, elegant lines, a pliable back, long arms and a delightful roundness of movement. She, too, caught my eye and held it; still a junior dancer, she is surely a diva in the making.
The second piece, NINA: By Whatever Means, is the latest work by the company’s South African dancer and prolific choreographer Mthuthuzeli November.
His homage to the African American singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist Nina Simone is heartfelt, but a bit of a mess, really. It’s a kind of biopic, made up of short scenes from key moments of her life, with November credited for choreography, direction, set design and scenery, and co-composer of the soundtrack.
Too much for one man? Undoubtedly. The piece needs a dramaturg to knock its narrative into shape, particularly the relative lengths of scenes. The duet between Nina Simone (Isabelle Coracy) and her jealous, violent second husband (Alexander Fadayiro), for example, is far too long, persisting with its violence well after the point has been made.
Cassa Pancho's Ballet Black in Mthuthuzeli November's NINA: By Whatever Means. Dancers: Isabella Coracy and Alexander Fadayiro. Photo: © Bill Cooper
Worse, it was danced on a small square of flooring with curled edges, with the inevitable result that both dancers tripped.
An experienced set designer would have predicted that; they would also not require the dancers to act as stagehands, constantly shifting props about.
November would have had time to concentrate on the choreography, which blends bits of jazz, swing, gospel swaying and clapping within a basis of African dance, mostly efficient but, truth to tell, not very interesting.
NINA: By Whatever Means is a good idea, with much worth salvaging, not least Isabella Coracy’s Nina, a commanding performance which perfectly captures the singer’s power and defiance.
And, of course, as a work that reflects Black experience and culture, it’s well within the brief Cassa Pancho set for her company.
|Ballet Black: Pioneers review
|Barbican Theatre, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, E2CY 8DS | MAP
08 Mar 23 – 12 Mar 23, 19:45 Sun at 15:00 Dur.: 90 mins approx inc one interval
|£10-£35 (+booking fee)