Review: BALLET BLACK: PIONEERS, Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Ballet Black return for the 21st season until May 20

By: May. 19, 2023
Review: BALLET BLACK: PIONEERS, Theatre Royal, Stratford East
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Review: BALLET BLACK: PIONEERS, Theatre Royal, Stratford East Ballet Black is now in its 21st season, Cassa Pancho's company entering somewhat of a new era after the retirement of company favourite, Cira Robinson and the addition of some junior members to its ranks. In a line up of just eight, how successful would such a significant shift be? Robinson was a star but, each BB dancer brings their own unique style and it made for interesting viewing in work both familiar and new in this double bill entitled, Pioneers.

The main attraction is new choreography from Senior Artist, Mthuthuzeli November, Nina: By Whatever Means, a love letter to the music and activism of Nina Simone, played decisively by Isabela Coracy.

It gets off to a strong start, November has a gift for storytelling and painting vivid pictures with his choreography, mime and not much else. Scenes that don't sound appealing sweep by, such as a young Simone's relationship with her piano teacher "Miss Mazzy", a prim and crisp Sayaka Ichikawa. Later, as adult Simone, Coracy's pas de deux with her eventually abusive husband (Alexander Fadayiro) is elegant and seductive despite being danced on what looks like a small square of lino.

However, somewhere along the way, the story loses its momentum and clarity. As we are thematically taken from Simone's singing career to her civil rights work, her role is less clear and the choreography more generic, but nonetheless powerful danced with the full company on stage to the music of Sinnerman. There is likely logic behind the costumes for those who surround Coracy and she reaches her diva-like conclusion but the meaning of the beige onesies were not clear and just looked very hot to dance in.

Regardless of its flaws, it's an enjoyable and engrossing 40 minutes thanks to Coracy's central performance, she's technically fluent and inherently watchable. It's a shame the bill could not showcase its other senior female, Ichikawa in the same way.

The opening piece revisits, Then and Now, choreographer Will Tuckett's third piece for the company, last seen in 2020 but with fresh casting and an opportunity to examine BBs up and coming stars.

Helga Paris-Morales takes the central role admirably, she is a little nervy on the restrictively sized Stratford East stage but improves over the course of the piece, her jetés landing gracefully. She is given a lot to do but despite some technical sketchiness, she rises to the considerable challenge.

Set against the spoken word of Adrienne Rich's Dark Fields of the Republic its a commanding call to action which forms the score before Daniel Pioro's musical accompaniment of sombre strings. It's a potentially exposing piece, danced in simple leotards for the women, and similarly plain practice wear for the men. There are moments of despair and joy, neither lasting long. There is both fragility and hope, even if just fleeting glimpses. November again, steals the limelight, his strong limbs and explosive jumps are instantly recognisable. New apprentice Taraja Hudson also shows promise, fitting in well with solid technique and musicality.

Ballet Black have mastered the art of programming a successful double bill, their dependable approach of the quiet, thought-provoking opener and powerhouse finale can undoubtedly be seen here. This charismatic company never fails to put on a good night out as well as something to think about.

Ballet Black are at Stratford East until May 20, and then touring.

Photo credit: Bill Cooper


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