Black ballet: Pointe break

Ballet is typically a white upper-class pursuit, right? Hannah Pool of London’s Guardian writes about black ballet company founded by Cassa Pancho, a young woman of Trinidadian and British parentage, who is trying to bring black into the world of ballet.

Cira Robinson started “pancaking” her ballet shoes when she was 18: “I use foundation. The colour is Caribbean coffee – it’s basic cheap make-up, but it works. Pointe shoes come only in the traditional pink, unless they’re red for a show. It would look strange if there was a pink shoe at the end of a brown leg, so it helps with the line. My pointe shoes are brown because my skin is brown.”

Robinson is one of eight dancers with Ballet Black, the company started in 2001 by Cassa Pancho with a mission to “provide dancers and students of black and Asian descent with inspiring opportunities in classical ballet”. Of Trinidadian and British parentage, Pancho studied classical ballet at the Royal Academy. “All through ballet school I was really aware of the lack of black people around me,” she says. “So for my dissertation I thought I would interview black women working in ballet and see what they had to say – but I couldn’t find a single black woman working in ballet, and that really stunned me. When I graduated, I decided, very naively, to do something about it myself.”

At first she struggled to be taken seriously. “All the ballet companies have been established for so many years, so for some young no one to come along, and say, ‘I want to start a company and it’s for black people’…”

In the early days, due to the lack of classically trained black ballet dancers in the UK, the company took dancers with a more contemporary background, which left them open to criticism. “We weren’t able to hold ourself to the standard of companies like the Royal Ballet,” Pancho says, “so people probably made comments about the level of technique. And we didn’t always go for a stick-thin look, so I’m sure that’s been mentioned.”

Some initial reviews were blatantly racist: “I remember one that said, ‘They show a lot of dedication, not normally seen in a heritage troupe.’ There were others that talked about ‘ballet done their way’.” But a decade of hard work has earned them the respect of reviewers and peers. In 2003, with the support of Deborah Bull, creative director of ROH2 (the contemporary arm of the Royal Opera House), the company moved its classes and rehearsal studios to the Royal Opera House and last year Ballet Black was awarded the Critics’ Circle dance award for outstanding company.

Funding, however, is an issue. “We did get a small Arts Council grant last year,” Pancho says, “but other than that we are completely unfunded. Right now, when I’m talking to you, the other part of my brain is thinking, ‘How am I going to pay the dancers?'”

Over the last 10 years, Ballet Black has grown from six to eight dancers, a ballet school with 50 pupils and an associates programme with more than 300 members and a 50-strong waiting list. “The school is for pupils aged three to 11, and the associates programme is 14-plus,” Pancho says. “It’s very mixed, but I’d say majority black, and gives the students the chance to work alongside professional ballet dancers. Some associates are people who always wished they’d done ballet, some trained in contemporary dance but want to maintain their ballet technique; we’ve got half the cast of The Lion King.”

The school underpins Pancho’s mission to create more black ballet dancers. “You cannot just magic black ballet dancers out of thin air,” she says. “That’s why I started the school, so kids would have somewhere to train where they wouldn’t necessarily be the one black face in the room.” But it takes a long time to train a ballet dancer. For a girl, it’s 15 years, for a boy between eight and 10 years. (Boys still get a bit of a “pass”, as there aren’t enough of them, says Pancho.)

It’s not just the cast of ballet Pancho is trying to change from within; it’s the choreographers, teachers and audience, too. “Typically, ballet is still a very elitist, white upper-class pursuit,” she says, “so for a lot of the audience it’s their first ballet, or their first trip to the Opera House, but then they see it and love it, and come back.”

A commitment to new work contributes to the company’s success. In February 2011, Ballet Black will be performing Orpheus, a new ballet choreographed by Will Tuckett. “I try to think of it in terms of ballet,” Pancho says. “I just programme the best work or the best choreographer, rather than what I think will make a black audience tick or white audiences tick, because it’s impossible to know. Calling it Ballet Black – having black and Asian dancers – that’s political enough.”

Indeed, the company’s name has sometimes been judged confrontational. “Some people think the name is too hardcore, or racist,” Pancho says, “but we’re not racist. We don’t do Malcolm X the ballet, though people do suggest it.” Which part of Ballet Black means the most to Pancho? “When there’s a show, there’s nothing like it, but the most fun is teaching the baby ballet class – they’re just so cute. And the children get to see Cira. She brings in her brown pointe shoes, so they see shoes in their skin colour, which is a massive thing.”

For the original report, which includes a gallery of fantastic photos and profiles of the company’s principal dancers go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/dec/04/black-ballet-cassa-pancho

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