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Pioneering Spirit

In “Pioneers,” the new double bill from the pioneering Ballet Black, we are treated to two distinct works between which the dancers transition with grace and pizazz.

Performance

Ballet Black: “Pioneers”

Place

Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, UK, 28 June 28, 2023

Words

Róisín O'Brien

Ballet Black perform “Nina.” Photograph courtesy of the company

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The first piece, “Then or Now,” is directed and choreographed by William Tuckett, and performed to both a ‘spoken score’ composed of poetry by Adrienne Rich (in collaboration with Director of Poetry, Fiona L. Bennett) and a sparse yet rich composition for violin by Daniel Pioro, which takes its lead from Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Passacaglia. It’s an abundance of ideas, themes, art forms & textures which explode out from the Edinburgh Festival Theatre stage. 

We open on the stage dotted with white chairs and towering industrial lamps, while the dancers are dressed humbly in light & dark greys of delicate fabric. There’s a sense of a jury, or some sort of shared space—here will be a hearing, a reckoning. The piece was originally created in 2020, which meant its original performance lifespan was truncated. Tuckett writes that he wanted to create something that spoke to the times we live in, a time of felt weightiness and responsibility.  

Within the wealth of Rich’s poetry and the beautiful piercing violin, Tuckett’s choreography holds its own nuance. There’s a softness and ease through the dancers’ whole bodies, recurring bends in the elbows and whispering feet, while they move through defined classical shapes. There’s ingenuity in how Tuckett capitalises on turns and momentum within partner lifts, so that the lifts never appear strained and are indeed often surprising in how they appear out of thin air.

“Then or Now” is strongest when busiest—when complicated, almost incidental group patterns emerge, intricate reorganisations of time, space and relationships, the dancers darting into then spiralling out of these brief vignettes. Sometimes the dance hooks onto the heft of the words, sometimes it sits at a cross-section. It’s a busy piece to process; the dancers perform it with depth of feeling.  

Ballet Black's “Nina: By Whatever Means” by Mthuthuzeli November. Photograph courtesy of the company

And then it’s off to “Nina: By Whatever Means,” directed and choreographed by senior artist within the company, Mthuthuzeli November. It charts Simone’s life from a young age learning classical piano, to the frenzy of jazz clubs, fame and love, and finishing with her strident advocacy for civil rights. 

The infectiousness of music is present throughout, from the itch to slide and strut in a bar, to the celebratory shake of the tambourine in church. November’s choreography smartly tracks the energy of the music by often starting the characters by, or ‘playing,’ an instrument, then allowing their movement to expand from there and spread across the stage. David Plater’s lighting at times strikes a bright purple and blue, while the set (also designed by November) rotates between closed walls of intimate, domestic spaces, to displaying stacked liquor shelves. There is darkness, too. Simone’s relationship with her second husband, Andrew Stroud, moves from infatuation and support, to jealousy and fighting. The pull of the piano becomes both distraction and outlet; Isabela Coracy as Simone and Alexander Fadayiro as Stroud, communicate both the closeness and anger in the relationship with commitment that doesn’t become overwrought. 

Ballet Black's “Nina: By Whatever Means” by Mthuthuzeli November. Photograph courtesy of the company

Following this place of darkness within the piece comes the next and final setting: the Civil Rights Movement. The rest of the company re-emerge dressed in dusty and loose draped clothing, and rush around in the darkness, displaying political placards. Recordings of Simone speak directly: her compulsion to speak out to “Black people . . . to give out to them that Black-ness that Black-power . . . pushing them to identity with Black culture.” “Sinnerman” bleeds out of the speakers, building . . .

The piece swells into a call to arms, the company dancers moving together in long leaps across the stage and wide seconds. In some sense it’s a shame they remain covered and in the background, but Coracy is the draw, the strength, the focal energy that tries to pull the audience in and rouse them for a final cry. November’s piece passionately introduces its audience to Simone’s world, and leaves you curious to find out more about this singular artist. 

Róisín O'Brien


Róisín is a dance artist and writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. She regularly writes for Springback Magazine, The Skinny and Seeing Dance, and has contributed to The Guardian and Film Stories. She loves being in the studio working on a new choreography with a group of dancers, or talking to brilliant people in the dance world about their projects and opinions. She tries not to spend too much time obsessing over Crystal Pite.

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