Review: PIONEERS, BALLET BLACK, Royal Opera House

Will Tuckett has a success on his hands; he's created a truly modern ballet

By: Nov. 17, 2023
Review: PIONEERS, BALLET BLACK, Royal Opera House

Review: PIONEERS, BALLET BLACK, Royal Opera House Ballet Black return to the Royal Opera House, Linbury Theatre with their double bill Pioneers.

First performed in March 2023 at the Barbican Theatre, the programme includes Will Tuckett's Then Or Now (2020) and company member Mthuthuzeli November’s Nina: By Whatever Means

Then Or Now takes the poetry of American Feminist, Adrienne Rich, and uses it as a foundation to discuss the current period of political and social change.

In the programme notes, Tuckett argues that “every action we take…has become a political act”, and confirms the responsibility he felt when creating the work in 2020 was more pressing than usual.

In 2023 I'd say we're changing more than ever, and Then Or Now hasn't dated at all. Tuckett has a success on his hands; he's created a truly modern ballet. A work that uses classical language in an unpredictable, fresh way.

Review: PIONEERS, BALLET BLACK, Royal Opera House

Initially I tried to determinedly overfocus on the poetry narration, but then realised I was making a mistake. This is a work of cohesion, where disparate genres weave together to create an overall effect, and it absolutely works.

That said, the last 10 minutes or so don't feature Rich's poetry, and Daniel Pioro's composition really comes to the forefront, which in turn allows Tuckett's choreography to find its usual, musical, intricate manner even more.

The overall work has a simple, stylish feel, helped no end by David Plater's subtle, ever-changing lighting design and of course Pioro's music, which evokes Bach's mathematical drama via von Biber's original piece.

The cast do wonderful work with Tuckett's movement language. Everything feels explored to its full value, and includes both understated and exuberant physicality. Tuckett also offers some very original pas de deux work, suggesting a similar approach to that of William Forsythe; lyrical phrasing punctuated with impactful dynamic peaks.

All of the dancers are watchable, but Helga Paris-Morales in the lead role (of sorts) is incredibly arresting. She has an irresistible mix of risk taking and emotionality in her dancing, and it's the kind of performance that never grows old.

Nina Simone is a riveting subject matter for anything, so one can understand Mthuthuzeli November’s inspiration for Nina: By Whatever Means. The work is defined as a “love letter to [the] musician, performer and activist” - and doesn't shy away from all aspects of Simone's life, no matter how ugly.

Review: PIONEERS, BALLET BLACK, Royal Opera House

November has managed to succeed where many fail: he's created an extremely compelling story ballet/piece of dance theatre that, in the end, transcends into a spiritual experience. It also rams home the important point: choose stories that are worth telling, and convey them with honesty and grit.

I take my hat off to this production. And when contemplating the amount of money being spent elsewhere, it's imperative to consider what November and Ballet Black had access to, financially speaking, in order to make such an unquestionably successful project work. No backdrop and a handful of flat, movable set pieces act as the mainstay, yet one is transported throughout to different environments, time periods and emotional states. Wow.

The choreography is more than just dance phrasing; it's the physical manifestation of the narrative, and the factual aspect makes it even more powerful to comprehend. A fine example of this is the way November portrays the domestic violence Simone was victim of. He shows it with both sensitivity and purpose, as opposed to the all too often overly dramatic approach. Not on his watch.

As before, the cast are extraordinarily involved in their work, to the point that by the end one doesn't feel an observer of the event, but rather a partaker.

November takes the audience back to the beginning of Simone's story, and includes a number of key characters, but somehow doesn't bombard the storytelling space. This can be the downfall for many: lacking process time and unhelpful busyness, so perhaps the (low budget?) simplicity is actually the key to the communicative success.

Isabela Coracy as Simone is a revelation. She isn't performing, she's channelling. And it's quite something to behold; to witness a dancer so involved with characterisation that they start to manifest, as opposed to simply playing a role.

The only real option to understand the value of this important work is to see it. And observing it in the Royal Opera House poses some interesting questions about the future of narrative dance, and where it’s being realised most successfully.

Bravi to all, and especially to Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black now in its 21st year. Nobody else (apart from potentially Ailey) is bringing this kind of work to the stage, and nobody else could probably do it like Ballet Black.

Pioneers runs at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House until November 19.

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

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