Review: Ballet Black: Pioneers @ Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Ballet Black - Pioneers - Festival Theatre - Edinburgh - Review at

Two very different shows, alike in dignity, and told with the ever-stylish excellence of Ballet Black.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

📍 Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
📅 Wed 28 to Thu 29 Jun 2023
🕖 Evenings 7.30pm
🕖 Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes (includes one interval
🎂 7+
🎭 Wheelchair Accessible Venue, Wheelchair Accessible Toilets, Audio Induction Loop

Then or Now (2020)
🎬Choreography & Direction: William Tuckett
💡 Lighting Design: David Plater
🪡 Costume Design: Yukiko Tsukamoto
✍️ Poetry: Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012)
💬 Director of Poetry: Fiona L Bennett
🗣️ Poetry Recordings: Hafsah Bashir, Natasha Gordon & Michael Shaeffer
🎶 Music: Daniel Pioro, Heinrich von Biber

Ballet Black, now in their 22nd year, finally bring their 2020 creation Then or Now to the Festival Theatre stage after Coronavirus put pay to that year’s touring plans. Choreographed by the renowned William Tuckett, it’s quite the jigsaw. The soundtrack, centred upon von Biber’s ‘Passacalagia for solo violin’ (1676) flows from the violin of Daniel Pioro, encouraged to include his own improvisations. The spoken word intertwined with these, draws from the work of Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012), performed by a three strong cast. These elements are woven into a single recorded track, leaving the 8 strong troupe to execute Tucker’s demanding, and cunningly woven intentions, with no margin of error.

Ballet Black performing Then or Now. The cast are arranged in two opposing groups, an argument seems to be taking place between two women at the centre of the stage, sat in chairs.

Review at
© Bill Cooper

Dominated by Rich’s love-powered, though unsentimental poetry, the action resembles a meeting, the dancers first arranged in chairs around the stage. Whether congregation or support group, the piece evolves with each poem, evoking conversation, philosophy, and the transmissibility of love. The pointe technique is particularly exceptional, as is the nigh-silence with which the talented group traverse the stages.

Solo’s evolve through duet into full cast choreographies, the whole performance a knot being tied and untied, straying between literal interpretation to abstract with organic ease. The readings are effortlessly elegant, the music simple, but not simplistic, Pioro finding something muscularly modern in the centuries’ old Sonatas.

Ultimately recorded music, however excellent, as Pioro’s is, can never be reactive, and only reacted to. On one hand it creates a thrilling tight-rope which the performers walk with style. However I do lament the loss of conversation between musician and dancer. Which is not to say Then or Now isn’t a thoughtful, and accomplished piece. Indeed this is elegant sophistication in peerless action.

NINA: By Whatever Means
🎬Choreography & Direction: Mtuthuzeli November
💡 Lighting Design: David Plater
🪡 Costume Design: Jessica Cabassa
🛠️: Set design & scenery: Mtuthuzeli November
💬 Director of Poetry: Fiona L Bennett

The second in Ballet Black’s touring programme is genre-transcending Mtuthuzeli November’s NINA: By Whatever Means, an explicit love letter to jazz icon and civil rights champion, Nina Simone. Best described as a montage of scenes from the great musician’s childhood and into her adulthood, the piece is dominated by a magnetic Isabela Coracy in the central role. Indeed were she any less powerful or eye-demanding, the piece might well fall a little flat.

“…the piece is dominated by a magnetic Isabela Coracy” © Bill Cooper

In contrast to the precise technique centred in the first ‘act’, NINA’s choreography exists in service to a distinct, and not at all abstract narrative. The result is an impassioned, energetic march through Simone’s prime, which if a little stop/go to begin with, matures into a roaring recreation of one woman’s stand against a structurally racist status quo.

It’s these final sequences, beginning with a searing depiction of civil unrest, and racially motivated violence, and culminating with a triumphal lip-sync to ‘Sinnerman’ that NINA: By Whatever Means, truly catches fire. There’s a terrifying sharpness to spinning tumbling conflict, followed by an undeniably stadium rock sensibility to the closing moments.

Ballet Black: Pioneers is a Ballet Black production, co-commissioned by the Barbican. The show will resume touring in October 2023.

Ballet Black: Pioneers played the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh between June 28 and 29th. For more information, click here.

For more on the continuing work of Ballet Black, click here.