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Ballet Black: changing the power structure in ballet

seven dancers are in a line in serveal balletic poses. The positions range from low to the ground, to the dancer at the back of the line in a jump.
2 Mar 2021
5 min read

Almost 20 years ago, Ballet Black set out to change ballet’s racism problem. The impact this small company made since then is seismic. Founder Cassa Pancho looks back over two decades.

The Black Lives Matter movement shone another spotlight on the world of ballet’s racism problem, with dancers such as Chloé Lopes Gomes from Berlin’s Staatsballett sharing their experiences of discrimination.

Here in the UK, dance company Ballet Black has been at the forefront of changing that landscape. It’s been responsible for bringing new audiences to the art, more Black and Asian dancers to the stage, worked with dance shoe maker Freed to create pointe shoes in darker skin tones, commissioned over 50 new works – including pieces by Black choreographers – and is transforming the dance world at all levels.

Yet, as it prepares to mark up its 20th anniversary later this year, there’s a certain weariness in the voice of founder Cassa Pancho MBE.

‘It's difficult when you’ve been submerged in race and dance for almost 20 years not to be cynical when another wave of Black Lives Matter comes along,’ she says.

The reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement saw many dance organisations approach Pancho for advice on how to improve diversity in their organisations.

‘It was a personal challenge not to be too cynical about the wave of companies pledging things and promising to make a change,’ she says. ‘The question for me is “Why do you think we’ve existed for this amount of time?” It was hard to accept that people learn in different stages.

‘2020 was a really rough year because I found myself in a lot of situations where people I’ve never spoken to before, who never acknowledged Ballet Black and who’ve never been to a show saying, “we’re peers, I want to pick your brain about improvements I can make.” And I’d say, “Sure, you can pay for our time.” And their response was “No, no, you don’t understand. We are colleagues. I’m not looking for a consultant, you should just want to help because of the push for diversity that’s going on, and we’re really interested in changing.” That was quite hard to swallow.

‘You may not have a ballet company where the N-word is being shouted at your one Black dancer. But that doesn’t mean they are not experiencing different kinds of racism and microaggressions.’ She sighs, disliking using buzzwords like “microaggression” because they irritate people who think ‘it’s all left liberal bullshit’. ‘Ballet has a racist past which has left us with a legacy of problems to address. Accept it, and then we can all move on.’

It’s the ‘and then we can move on’ that is Pancho’s ultimate goal. She’s been trying make this side of her job redundant for the past two decades; fighting to be in a situation where we’re no longer talking about someone’s struggles to be a dancer because of the colour of their skin.

The Ballet Black Company in The Waiting Game by Mthuthuzeli November. Photography by Holly McGlynn

The Ballet Black story begins when Pancho was sent to local ballet classes in Ealing, aged two-and-a-half. But it wasn’t the fairy-tale beginning you might imagine.

‘I didn't really like it very much at first,’ she admits. ‘I would always cry if my parents tried to leave me there. Then a couple of years later, I would cry when they came to get me because I was enjoying myself so much.’

She says although she found her ballet teachers ‘terrifying’, it was a place that felt much safer than school because she didn’t really enjoy academic life. Going to ballet was an escape, a safe haven from the prejudice in the playground.

‘I really didn’t like going to high school. It was just quite tough. You were either a Black kid or a white kid, and if you were mixed, it was hard to find your place in those days.’

She thrived in ballet – and demonstrated clear talent, going on to train at the Royal Academy of Dance. But a back injury in her late teens stopped her practising for two years just before she studied The Art and Teaching of Classical Ballet at Durham University in 2001. It was there that the academic side clicked, and she wrote her dissertation about the fact there were no women of colour performing in UK ballet companies.

‘At my ballet school in Ealing we were all different colours and shapes and sizes. But when I got to professional school, things changed. What I really noticed going to professional school was how Caucasian it was. I found myself constantly wondering “where are the Black people?” There were no Black staff, no Black students, nothing.

‘It made me realise that we need to change the power structure everywhere in ballet.’

So she asked a friend of hers, Denzil Bailey, who had just retired from dancing with the English National Ballet to come and teach a ballet class, called Ballet Black. People flocked from across the country – not just Black, but Asian and white too. ‘It just meant that you could come to the class and not be like one or two Black people in room surrounded by white faces.’ The company was born shortly after.

At that time, five big ballet companies dominated the sector. Starting a new company was something no-one did, unless it was built around a star dancer. Pancho had just come out of dance school. No-one took her seriously.

So, what kept her motivated during these times?

I do run a little bit on spite,’ she laughs. ‘If you tell me I can't do something, then I really, really want to do it just to show you that I can.

After running the company part-time for a few years, Pancho got a meeting with Deborah Bull (now Baroness Bull). The former principal ballerina with the Royal Ballet had recently stopped dancing to run the institution’s newly-refurbished Linbury Theatre and Clore Studio venues. After hearing the aims of Ballet Black, Bull said the company could move all its rehearsals to Clore Studio at the weekends.

‘That elevated us to a point where everybody wanted to come and do class with us,’ remembers Pancho, pointing to this as a milestone in the company’s development.

Ballet Black became a magnet for people wanting to make new work, and that attracted the critics. Bull’s trust in Ballet Black was repaid over and again because the company sold-out every show at the Linbury for about 14 years.

When the Covent Garden venue closed for refurbishment, Pancho reached out to our Head of Theatre and Dance Toni Racklin, and Ballet Black became a regular and well-loved presence on our stage. Since its debut here in 2016, the company has delighted audiences at packed-out shows.

Something many people are drawn to is the company’s active commissioning of new works – it’s racked up over 50 in almost 20 years. Pancho says, ‘Originally the motivation was, “do we want to do another Swan Lake? Does the world need another one? No, it doesn’t”. Plus, we just didn't have the number of dancers to replicate existing ballet repertoire. So I had to find people to make work for us. Then I realised that no one else was doing it. And people were interested in it, it was bringing us all these interesting choreographers, and then the critics. So it became a thing that we were also known for.’

photo of two dancers from ballet black

Looking back over its two decades, Pancho says she feels proud of what’s been achieved. ‘Ballet Black is full of great people who are great at what they do. We keep shows interesting, and make sure they have something for everyone, because with no audience what are we doing this for?’

She says highlights include moments such as the first time the company performed at the Barbican and sold it out; dancing on stage with grime star Stormzy at 2019’s Glastonbury Festival; the partnership with Freed of London to create the first skin tone pointe shoes, handmade in the UK for Black, Asian and mixed race dancers. And then she pauses.

‘Then there’s our ballet school – the first class of the day is the three-year-old baby ballet class. They love ballet, and they’re a mix of Black, white, Asian, mixed race. The amazing thing is that none of those kids have ever considered that they can’t do ballet, because everywhere they look is a role model that looks like them or someone in their family. And that is what all those people I interviewed for my dissertation never had.’

It’s a neat illustration that although there’s still a way to go, the future of British ballet looks significantly more inclusive. And that’s due in no small part to the formidable Ballet Black.

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