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  • Eddie Hewitt

Ballet Black in profile

Connections and Opportunities

Introduction

“Ballet Black is Britain’s most diverse and daring ballet company. Not only do they open up opportunities for black and Asian dancers, but they are also one of the most prolific commissioners of new work in this country”.

Thandie Newton (Patron of Ballet Black)

Ballet Black is doing wonders for dancers. The company is also doing wonders for ballet audiences, by staging brilliant performances with beautifully choreographed dancing and inspirational artists.

The black in Ballet Black is essential, and vital, and vibrant. But the performances by the company are enjoyed and admired by all who love ballet. When I was at the Barbican for the double bill of The Suit and A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I sensed no exclusivity at the venue. Other than the exclusivity of excellence, a crucial part of the Ballet Black ethos.

Reaching new heights - Ballet Black's José Alves (photo: @photobyAsh)

After the performance in London, hundreds stayed on for the post-show talk. A Twitter scribe, @MillennialMaryA wrote:

“Came for ballet and they took me to church too. Loved it. Feeling super inspired by @Cirabesque @BalletBlack @kwamekweiarmah”

These sentiments must have been felt by so many of us present on the night.

As well as excellence and inspiration, Ballet Black stands for willingness to share. This was encapsulated in the after-show chat, chaired by the friendly and authoritative Kwame Kwei-Armah, a fellow patron of Ballet Black. I always used to enjoy his comments on BBC2’s Newsnight Review and I'm delighted to rediscover him now. He is so polite and dignified. Addressed ladies as Ma’am. So charming. Composed. That scarf, though! A fine man to have as the artistic director of the Young Vic theatre. But this is dance, and he was knowledgeable and in control here too. Alongside him was Cassa Pancho, the Founder and Artistic Director of Ballet Black. Kwame and Cassa were soon joined by Senior Artist Cira Robinson, winding down from the emotional heights she reached in her performance.

Kwame Kwei-Armah, Ballet Black Patron

(photo: Richard Anderson via The Stage, 2017)

The pinnacle of artistic expression

It strikes me that ballet is the finest form of cultural, artistic expression. The most comprehensive and inclusive, even, with movement, music, storytelling and theatricality. It incorporates the extremes of human physical and emotional endeavour. It’s the form of dance with the most magic. Sometimes classical, sometimes contemporary. Frequently timeless.

Kwame was so right to stress that Ballet Black is all about excellence. Both in the pursuit and in the delivery. This takes passion, commitment, skill, determination and much more. It requires dancers to go deep within themselves and to make their performance believable. From experience. From imagination and creativity. Ballet Black has all of these qualities and abilities in abundance. Maybe a touch of vibranium in their ballet shoes as well.

Ballet Black forever!

(photo via Twitter - @Ballet Black)

Connected Cultures

Ballet has historically been regarded and protected as an elite form of entertainment, by whites and for whites. In her blog, Pancho has revealed some of the stupid statements she has heard in the past, including:

“Black women have feet that are unsuitable for pointe work” and

“Black people don’t want to do ballet”

Moreover, when Pancho founded Ballet Black, she was told by established leading white figures that a new, black ballet company would be pointless since it would be a) too small and b) unsuited to ballet.

These statements, along with every other aspect of racism, are ridiculous, but they are also cruel and still have an impact. Racism in ballet still needs dismantling. There must be opportunity for all. Ballet Black is at the forefront of this movement, addressing the issues through artistic endeavour rather than on social or political platforms.

Ballet Black is all about connectivity and engagement. Culturally and internationally.

Pancho is half British, half Trinidadian. She has an MBE for Services to Classical Ballet, and has the Freedom of the City of London.

Cassa Pancho (centre) with directors/choreographers Cathy Marston (L) and Arthur Pita (R), at the Barbican 2018 (photo via Twitter - @Ballet Black)

There are seven performers in the Ballet Black company, from far and wide. Data is not readily available on the number of BAME dancers in the wider ballet world. An article by the Daily Telegraph in 2015 showed that five out of ninety six dancers in the Royal Ballet were black, with five black dancers out of a troupe of sixty four in the English National Ballet. The ratios for these major ballet companies must be an improvement over historical ratios, but there is still a need for greater diversity.

Stars and reaching for the stars

It always seems unfair to refer to people as role models. But many aspiring ballerinas from BAME backgrounds look up to Misty Copeland in the USA. South Africans have Michaela DePrince, and in Britain we have Ballet Black Senior Artists: Cira Robinson (on loan from America), Isabel Coracy (Brazil) and Sayaka Ichikawa (Japan). For males, Carlos Acosta (Cuba) has been a shining star, and young dancers can also aspire to perform like Jose Alves (Ballet Black’s Senior Artist from Brazil). Marie Astrid Mence (France), Mthuthuzeli November (South Africa) and Ebony Thomas (London) make up the Ballet Black ensemble.

Back row L-R: Cira Robinson, Ebony Thomas, Cassa Pancho, Isabel Coracy, Marie Astrid Mence, José Alves; Front Row L-R: Sayaka Ichikawa, Mthuthuzeli November (photo via Twitter - @Ballet Black)

Resistance and Opportunity

It is hard enough for all dancers. “No one ever wants 100 dancers all in one go” (Pancho). The chances are few and far between. Yet they are especially hard for black dancers. Pancho and Robinson were adamant that “ballet is ballet” and colour is not essentially an issue. They made no direct accusations of current racism. But they must be acutely aware that there is still a problem and that racist myths still need dispelling.

When pressed, during the post-show interview at the Barbican, Robinson seemed to be doing her best not to accuse American casting agents and artistic directors of racism. She praised her fellow black dancers, but took the line that however brilliant they are, there is all too often "still something missing" and they don’t get the parts. To me, that something missing is on the part of white elitists in positions of power in ballet companies. That something is equality. Rising above the problems, Robinson urges aspiring black ballet dancers not to listen to anyone who tells them they can’t or won’t succeed. Not to give up.

Strike a pose: Cira Robinson (photo: @photobyASH)

Audience

The make-up of audiences at Ballet Black performances is a positive factor in the world of ballet. This was expressed succinctly, along with a call for further change across the creative industries, by @DannyLee Wynter on Twitter:

“Never seen a more racially diverse audience. Sat beside their Artistic Director who says this has been 17 years in the making! UK Theatre needs to wake up. Make great work celebrating leading black talent and the audiences will come!“

From my rough glance across the stalls, I noted that approximately a third of the audience were people from BAME backgrounds. There was a fairly large number of males present, and a considerable spread of age groups, including school age children, both boys and girls. So, overall, a good mix in terms of ethnic background, gender and race.

Developments

Ballet Black were thrilled to announce on the night the recent creation of truly flesh coloured pointe shows for black dancers. In two shades. A welcome and long overdue development in the industry. These new pointe shoes have been created by Freed of London in collaboration with Ballet Black. Cassa Pancho has described this as

“an historic moment – not only for British ballet but for black dancers around the world”.

Isabel Coracy in 'nude' Freed of London shoes, raised high by Mthuthuzeli November, with Ebony Thomas looking on (photo: Bill Cooper)

Another big step in the right direction is the move to a new larger studio in 2018. More space for more dancers, more creativity, and more success are on the way.

If I’m allowed my own request for change, I would love to see the company perform to a live orchestra. The recorded soundtracks for The Suit and A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream were energising enough, but live music would take the performances intro the stratosphere.

I’m being adventurous here, but I would also love to see grander productions, with many more dancers joining the company and celebrating the Ballet Black cultural, artistic ethos. I fully recognise that availability of funding for such developments is crucial here.

Final Reflections

Long before seeing A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I wondered why anyone would want to recreate Shakespeare in ballet form. I now have my answer, and my appreciation of culture has been finely enhanced.

Puck (Isabel Corcacy) and Titania (Cira Robinson), reimagining Shakespeare (photo: Bill Cooper)

I wholeheartedly support the company in providing opportunities for dancers who are prevented from fulfilling their potential due to the ludicrous notions and actions of others in the ballet world and in society. It is sad to have to note that anyone might think that a person might be unsuitable for ballet because of their colour. And Ballet Black are admirable in the way that they do not dwell on racist limitations, but seek rather to believe in their ability to develop their art in its highest form.

I am so looking forward to the next production. I am also looking back. The first date of Ballet Black’s upcoming tour – see dates below - reminds me of a wonderful day when my own ballerina daughter danced on stage at the Corn Exchange in Newbury. She starred in An Invitation to the Dance with the North Ascot School of Dancing. Freed of London shoes would have come in handy then too. My heart feels warm with happy memories, and I am excited by the present and the future of ballet for all.

© Eddie Hewitt 2018

Thanks to Ballet Black, Bill Cooper and @photobyASH for the photographs

Links:

Connected Cultures review of The Suit and A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream

Ballet Black http://balletblack.co.uk

2018 Tour dates: full details via: http://balletblack.co.uk/events

25 April, 2018 - 7:45pm

Newbury Corn Exchange

26 April, 2018 - 7:30pm

UH Arts, Weston Auditorium, The de Havilland Campus Hatfield

02 May, 2018 - 7:30pm

Bristol Old Vic

16 May, 2018 - 7:30pm

Playhouse, Nottingham

24 May, 2018 - 7:30pm

Hazlitt Theatre, Maidstone

04 June, 2018 - 7:30pm

Eden Court, Inverness

06 June, 2018 - 8:00pm

Dundee Rep

08 June, 2018 - 09 June, 2018 - 7:30pm

Tramway, Glasgow

26 June, 2018 - 7:30pm

Northcott Theatre, Exeter

10 October, 2018 - 13 October, 2018 - 7:30pm

Stratford, London

© 2020 Eddie Hewitt. All rights reserved.