Saved events

Sound Unbound with Cassa Pancho

Nothing Concrete text
11 Mar 2020
15 min listen

In this episode of Sound Unbound, Cassa Pancho, choreographer and founder of Ballet Black, discusses Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, the challenges of choreographing work to music and the emotional impact music can have on the audience.

I assumed that the music is written down and when you play it, it's the same as when someone else plays it. But it was the first time I realised that there were many different interpretations, not just with the speed, but with the mood from the musicians, which is not something I had considered as a dancer.

Introduced by Josie Long and with help from conductor Ben Gernon, Sound Unbound meets with creative minds to learn about the music that moves them. Part of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast.

Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify, iTunes or wherever you find your podcasts.


Nothing Concrete text on concrete background

Sound Unbound with Cassa Pancho

In this episode of Sound Unbound, Cassa Pancho, choreographer and founder of Ballet Black, discusses Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, the challenges of choreographing work to music and the emotional impact music can have on the audience.


JL: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Josie Long, and this is Sound Unbound, part of Nothing Concrete where we get inside the music that gets under the skin of creative people. Today, it's all about the connections between music and dance.

CP: My name is Cassa Pancho, and I'm the founder and artistic director of Ballet Black. Ballet Black is a company I set up in 2001, and the purpose was, at the beginning, to raise the profile and elevate dancers of Black and Asian descent, who at the time were very underrepresented in classical ballet. And at the same time, we discovered that another strength we had was to create new ballets. So we would ask choreographers to take a piece of existing music and make a new work for us, which means that we now have a repertoire of over 46 ballets with music from every kind of genre. In 2009, I approached Will Tuckett to ask him if he would make a ballet for us. We hadn't worked together before. But I knew his work from his choreography for the Royal Ballet. And he was really interested in doing something for us. But he said, let me go away and think about it, because I put up quite a few restrictions on him, which were, it's a very small budget, there's no set, the costumes had to be quite minimal. And we've only got six dancers and I need a piece that's 20 minutes.

Will came back to me and said he would really like to use Ravel's 'Sonata for violin and cello'. And I heard it and I thought, Oh, how am I going to count this? Because what happens is a choreographer makes their piece and they go away and I'm in charge of rehearsing it. And it sounded amazing, but also in terms of a dancer, finding the eight count phrases, which helps us to rehearse and to tidy things up, you know we decided that everybody does the arm on six. But if you don't know where the six is, it's really frustrating and impossible. But there was actually something about his choreography and the music when you put them together, it made sense to the dancers and to me. To find the way through it, it depends on the music, sometimes I will sit down and work out how many eights there are, but more from a dancer perspective. So if the music all sounds very similar, and it's hard to know when the next move or the entrance comes in, you go through with a dancer and you work out it's fifteen sets of eight, then you come on and do your solo or something like that. But with this piece, and I'm not sure whether it's because of Will or because of the music or because of the combination of the two, I didn't need to do that, I didn't need to go through and find all the counts, and figure out special things because it actually all sort of said it as we went along. The first time Will played the music for me. I remember being first of all really pleased that the music really fit the brief that I'd given him. Because although in the middle, there's this beautiful adagio section, the beginning and end, were very bright and upbeat. And when I go to a ballet, I really love the upbeat stuff and I'm okay with some of the slower things and the more emotional things but I really, really like the up tempo happy moments, and so I personally was really happy that it began ended that way, in my opinion.

JL: If you know Ravel's music, you might know the extravagance of La Valse; the sumptuous ballet Daphnis et Chloé; and his Bolero can't have passed you by. But this Sonata sounds completely different for the last time in this season of Sound Unbound, conductor Ben Gernon has got the context.

BG: Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello marks a really important departure for Ravel's compositional style. It's important to remember that Ravel had just been through the First World War. He was 39 when Germany invaded France, and he really wanted to enrol as a pilot. He was a very small man, and he felt that his lightweight body would be perfect for flying around the skies, but because of a minor heart complaint, and his not great site - and his age - he wasn't allowed to become a pilot. So instead, he enrolled as a truck driver and he also looked after many, many injured and wounded men throughout the war. But it had a profound effect on him, and his mother who he was extremely close to, also died just after the end of the First World War. So Ravel was in a very strange place. Because Debussy had also just died in 1918. And everybody thought that Ravel was going to be the next big national composer, something that he really didn't feel very comfortable about. The post-war aesthetic for Parisian audiences was one of simplicity, of directness and actually a scaling down of the orchestra and the forces that composers used. People rejected big swathes of Romanticism and huge Wagnerian orchestras and Mahlerian forces. And what they really wanted was a forward looking modernist style. So composers like Satie and Stravinsky, were exploring this, particularly post 'The Rite of Spring' and Ravel really struggled with this because he was an expert at writing pieces that honoured the past. If you think about 'Le tombeau de Couperin', which is a collection of Baroque dances and you think about 'La Valse', which is an homage to the old Viennese waltz, these are deliciously brilliant pieces. And so Ravel actually suffered from a bout of depression, he was in a really bad place. But this piece marks a new turning point in Ravel's work, where he focuses on making music that's more simplistic, more elegant, and actually more exposed.

CP: One of the successful things for us about this ballet is that even though it's a piece for two musicians, they are able to take us on quite a big pathway through a lot of different emotions in terms of the dancing. For me, when I listen to I don't really think of it as two musicians, because for me, it feels like a really big piece of music. And it was made for six dancers, and they are constantly moving. And it really brings all the energy and the power of the dancers of Ballet Black to the front, because the music kind of carries them through it. Then all of a sudden, Will strips back absolutely everybody, everybody runs up the stage except for two people. And that's where the big pas de deux moment comes in. And it's completely different. I mean, it's still, it all goes together. But it's such a different mood that we suddenly, from all this frantic, sort of joyous, weird quirky, movement, everything gets stripped back. And it's a very intimate, clear, romantic moment between these two dancers, and I think also for our audience who are often not regular ballet goers. 

The music made it so clear that we've wiped everybody away and it's now just about these two people, that we didn't need a storyline, which we didn't have for the piece and we didn't need a programme note saying, what they're thinking or what's happening here because the music did it all for you. And that helped Will just tell it all through pure ballet, and I think that's really hard to find music and the choreographer to match up and do that.

BG: I think when performing this piece, the challenges for the performers are maintaining a really good balance between head and heart. You have Ravel's sense of elegance and wonderful sweet through the music, but also underneath with this new style of writing, you have to remain very disciplined. Everything has to be extremely focused. So whereas in Daphnis et Chloé, for example, you could let yourself really just sink into these sounds and really  feel very loose as a performer, I think with this music, especially when there's only two players as well, has to be extremely focused, but also you have to try and find an emotional line at the same time too.

CP: So once you've commissioned a choreographer and they pick their music and their themes, the next job for me is to try and get a title out of the choreographer and most choreographers hate coming up with a title for abstract work. It's really easy if you're doing a narrative story because it's already there for you. But when you ask a choreographer for a title of an abstract work, they avoid you and avoid you until the absolute last minute when you have to insist on one because you're going to print with your brochure! And I asked Will for a title and he said, I'm thinking about it, because you've said it's got to be very stripped back and the costumes were black and white. So even the colour was very minimal. And I'm thinking about the music and what I will call it to make all of that come together. And he came back and said, I think that Dépouillement, one of the titles of one of the tracks in the group of pieces, is the right word to use because although it's not the common translation, it can mean stripped back and bare and that is, that really sums up Ballet Black and our ethos at the time. And I wasn't sure if we should use that because part of Ballet Black's mission is to make ballet feel more accessible. And sometimes when you see a word in another language, you didn't have to pronounce it maybe or you don't know what it means. And I feel that can sometimes be a bit of a barrier. You look at it and go, what does..? How do I say that? I don't know what that means, I'm not going to understand what the ballet's about. So he explained in his programme note that he wanted to, because of what we've asked him to do in terms of no live music, and no set and stuff like that. He wanted to strip it, his own work back and just focus on the choreography and that is what the word means. And it's within the music. And he thought it actually made perfect sense. And he put it into the programme notes so that anyone who maybe wasn't sure could could look at it and understand. 

We were doing a fundraiser and decided that a really nice way to show off the ballets would be to take small excerpts of some of the pieces we were doing, and do it to live music. And because a lot of the choreographers at the time had been following this brief of choose music with small amounts of musicians, we thought that Will's ballet would be perfect. And we got these two musicians in, who were brilliant, to play for us. But they played it so slowly it was unrecognisable to us. And I said, OK, this sounds wonderful, but it's, we've been doing this ballet for years at this speed, and now you're coming with a very different tempo for us. So we need to pick it up. And I gave them the CD that we had worked with. And one of the musicians, they were both women, said, oh, yes, this is - I see, yes, it's a very pompous way of doing it. We can do that, you know, give us a few minutes, we'll go away and work on it. And I, I'd never considered that you could play a piece of music with an attitude. And I thought that was just really, really funny that they thought that the version we were using was a very pompous and serious version. And that that would require them to go away and look at the music because from a dance perspective, I assume that the music is written down and when you play it, it's the same as when someone else plays it. But it was the first time I realised that there were many different interpretations, not just with the speed, but with the mood from the musicians, which is not something I had considered as a dancer. It was really weird. 

JL: Thanks to Cassa Pancho, Ben Gernonh and to you for listening to this episode of Sound Unbound with me Josie Long. This is the last episode in this season of Sound Unbound but stay subscribed to Nothing Concrete to hear archive content and new podcasts from the Barbican. Sound Unbound is produced by Freya Hellier for Loftus Media. The assistant producer is Alex Quinn.

Please consider donating

We rely on the money we raise through ticket sales, commercial activities and fundraising to deliver our arts and learning programme. It forms more than 60% of our income. Show your support by making a donation and help inspire more people to discover and love the arts.