Pioneers played at the National Arts Centre’s Babs Asper Theatre in Ottawa on Oct. 3 and 4.
A single dancer on centre stage is accompanied first by silence, then by an isolated violin; as she begins her slow, lyrical spins and graceful extensions, she is watched by two audiences, one comprised of her fellow dancers seated in a circle around her. A voice rings out, relaying the first words of poetry that act as part of the score.
This begins choreographer William Tuckett’s piece Then or Now, the first in Pioneers. The double bill marks a North American debut for Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black, a U.K. dance company committed to showcasing Black and Asian dancers.
Throughout Then or Now, Tuckett plays with synchronicity. The powerful words and poems of Adrienne Rich are combined with Daniel Pioro’s solo violin to create an evocative soundtrack — the pieces falling in and out of a shared rhythm. The dancers’ movements also play with this duality; at times their movements become sharp, lining up with the cadence of the words and other times they play with abstraction, moving away from the words, towards either silence or music. They sway from moving as an ensemble to dancing to their own beat, one after the other. Rich’s words declare, “Sending love is harmless… Sending love is carefree,” as the dancers joyously open their chests to one another.
In a final quiet yet striking moment, a dancer previously alone at centre stage takes a seat amongst the others; she looks to the left, then to the right, then bows her face into her hands, joining the group in stillness.
Then or Now demands to be seen again. Despite the simplicity of the piece, there is somehow too much to take in all at once; we are forced to pick and choose where our attention goes — one moment the poetry is overwhelming, in others the dancers captivate with inspirational lunges and jumps or the haunting sounds of the violin take centre stage.
As the piece ends a shift takes place; the mood lightens as the voice of Nina Simone begins to serenade us during intermission, preparing a path into the second act. This shift is also reflected in the lighting design: bright blue, purple and red dominate the stage.
From the first moments of Nina: By Whatever Means, we are drawn into Simone’s world. Isabela Coracy portrays her with aching vulnerability and spellbinding passion, guiding us through Simone’s life by exploring her love of music, relationships and social justice activism. The piece opens with Coracy as Simone onstage at her last jazz festival appearance, inviting us into her life: “We will start at the beginning,” she says.
That beginning is at her piano where she learns to play music. The instrument is a focal point in the piece, it never leaves the stage. Coracy’s Simone transforms and shines in front of an audience, her confidence radiating through her music and movements. She easily shifts into what each moment requires, from the jive of the jazz bar with stomps, claps and hip shakes, to the power of a raised fist and a hand to heart during a march for freedom.
Mthuthuzeli November’s choreography is turbulent yet grounded in each emotion. In one particularly harrowing scene depicting a fight between Simone and her husband, portrayed by Ebony Thomas, he strips it back to simple movements: Coracy and Thomas move from tenderness to anger, spinning through their hurt in a frenzy.
Nina: By Whatever Means concludes with a frenetic sequence set to Simone’s heart-racing song, Sinnerman. Coracy commands the stage, inducing us to join in creating the pace with fast clapping. Cloaked figures run around her in a whirlwind of movement building the energy into a crescendo, giving us a final glimpse into Simone’s life and impact.
Both works create a distinct feeling in the theatre, each playing with a unique combination of music and words, forming intricate scores. Coracy is a standout with her unforgettable embodiment of Simone.
This North American debut from Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black is a strong introduction to the company’s repertoire, making for an engaging evening of dance and emotion.
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