Ballet Black Wants to Capture the Pioneering Spirit of Nina Simone

March 3, 2023

This spring, Ballet Black is set to return to the Barbican Centre in London with the premiere of Nina: By Whatever Means, a new ballet inspired by the artistry and activism of American singer-songwriter Nina Simone. Created by BB senior artist Mthuthuzeli November, the production honors Simone’s legacy and adds to the company’s growing collection of work that depicts the Black experience through classical ballet.

“I hoped to investigate a little more on who Nina really was, what drove her, what she stood for beyond the music that we all know and love,” says November. “The power of her presence and her voice is truly inspirational.”

Isabela Coracy as Nina Simone. Photo by Nick Guttridge, courtesy Ballet Black.

The show—which will share the program with William Tuckett’s Then Or Now, first performed by the company in 2020—will tell Simone’s story of perseverance and determination in the face of adversity. Her turbulent journey to success in the music industry encouraged her to break barriers and thrive in historically white-dominated spaces. This is something that resonates deeply with the dancers and creatives at Ballet Black who put the show together.

“It’s always a great responsibility when you’re telling the story of someone who was real, whether they are still with us now or not,” Cassa Pancho, MBE, founder of Ballet Black, tells Pointe. “We see much of our own struggle reflected in Nina’s life.”

“There is still a long way to go before Black dancers feel fully accepted by the ballet world,” she continues, highlighting the fact that some companies outside the UK still perform in blackface and that pointe shoes and tights for Black skin are still inaccessible for many. “Simone dreamed of becoming a classical pianist at a time when classical musicians didn’t look like her,” Pancho adds. “Much of that exclusivity and elitism still exists.”

Simone’s activism during the civil rights movement of the 1960s seeped into her music, heard in her iconic lyrics and seen in the ways she used her performances to speak out against racial violence; in 1965, she met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after singing for protesters as they marched from Selma to Montgomery following Bloody Sunday. In November’s depiction of Simone’s life, he explores both her involvement in the civil rights movement as well as some of the lesser-known moments from her past—from her early training at Juilliard to her rise to fame and her relationships with her mother and her husband—blending jazz blues with the company’s neoclassical style.

The Ballet Black Company (L-R) Sayaka Ichikawa, Helga Paris Morales, Ebony Thomas, Taraja Hudson, José Alves, Rosanna Lindsey, Isabela Coracy and Alexander Fadayiro. Photo by Nick Guttridge, courtesy Ballet Black.

November hopes the piece will inspire audiences to feel, he says, “a little closer to our legends,” and that “by bringing this work to life it opens more opportunities for us to learn more and tell more relevant stories of inspiring people.”

The show itself is intimate; there will only be eight dancers onstage. Pancho agrees that this creates a closeness with the audience, allowing viewers to really get to know each performer: “So many big ballets are all about perfection and the line. And of course that is massively important in ballet, but we’re trying to get to truth and feeling something real.”

Ballet Black’s audiences tend to be a diverse demographic—from different age groups, different ethnicities, different upbringings. Pancho says many viewers don’t necessarily have an inbuilt knowledge of traditional ballets like Swan Lake and Giselle. This, she says, presents an opportunity: “We are creating a canon of stories that are maybe more relevant to today’s audience.”

“I have never met anyone that doesn’t like Simone’s music,” says Pancho, “but however you feel about Nina Simone, whether you know her backstory or not, I think everyone—no matter what culture you come from—will connect with the human struggle and overcoming that you see in this piece.”

Nina: By Whatever Means will run at London’s Barbican Centre March 8–12, 2023.