Barbican Guide
March 2021


Welcome to the March edition of the Guide. Following the Government’s roadmap, we’re now busy preparing to open in May and can’t wait to see you then. But although the Centre is closed, we’ve still got loads on offer this month.

We’re excited to host the 25th Human Rights Watch Film Festival through our Cinema On Demand platform. Discover what to look out for and how the documentaries are chosen, in an interview with director John Biaggi.

For many people, seeing a Ballet Black performance is a highlight. This year the company which brings more Black and Asian dancers to the stage notches up 20 years since it was founded by Cassa Pancho. Read on to find out all about this ground-breaking company’s work and achievements.

Dive in, and don’t forget to stay in touch with us on our social channels. 

Free films and money off music for Members

Our Cinema On Demand service is like having a team of film experts at your fingertips, there to assemble and share great stories from around the world just for you. Now, for a limited time, Members can get free access to many of the films on the platform – golden ticket access to specially-curated new release films and exclusive one-off titles. 

One of our other hugely popular platforms over the last 12 months is the Live From the Barbican series of concerts, broadcast from our Hall. If you missed any of the real-time performances with artists such as Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Yuja Wang, or shows such as Professor Brian Cox’s The Cosmos, and the Academy of Ancient Music’s performance of Handel’s Messiah, this is your chance to catch-up. Members get 20% off Concerts On Demand.

As well as these exclusive discounts and offers, Members know they’re supporting our important work. Find out more, and join the tens of thousands of others.

The Long Read

Changing the power structure in ballet

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

Ballet Black (c) Rick Guest

Ballet Black (c) Rick Guest

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.

Ballet Black dancers Marie Astrid Mence & Ebony Thomas. Image (c) Arnaud Stephenson

Ballet Black dancers Marie Astrid Mence & Ebony Thomas. Image (c) Arnaud Stephenson

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.’

Holly McGlynn

Holly McGlynn

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.

Shining a light on
human rights

Human Rights Watch Film Festival celebrates 25 years of activists, journalists and advocates who are making the world a better place.

Still from 'Unapologetic'

Still from 'Unapologetic'

One of cinema’s great powers is enabling audiences to walk in the shoes of others. And it’s a particularly powerful medium when it comes to highlighting human rights abuses around the world. For 25 years, the London edition of Human Rights Watch Film Festival has been at the forefront of drawing attention to such issues, and this year director John Biaggi is particularly looking forward to sharing this work with the whole of the UK.

The festival takes place exclusively on Barbican Cinema On Demand, meaning for the first time audiences from across the country will be able to watch the ten films selected by Biaggi and his team. As a result, he’s expecting a larger audience than usual.

‘We aim to have a diversity of films from around the world,’ says Biaggi, adding this year’s programme highlights trailblazing women, activists’ resilience and resistance, education as an essential tool for change, plus there’s a special spotlight on Latin America.

With films from Ireland, Germany, Kenya, Philippines, the United States and Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela, eight of this year’s line-up are directed or co-directed by women.

‘Women’s rights issues have always been a big theme for us,’ he says. ‘Our opening film The 8th tells the story of how Ireland overturned one of the world’s most restrictive laws on abortion. And our closing film is Unapologetic, in which director Ashley O’Shay introduces Janaé Bonsu and Bella BAHHS, two women who are seeking justice for the deaths of two Black Chicagoans at the hands of the police.’

Still from 'the 8th'

Still from 'the 8th'

Also on the festival bill, Belly of the Beast reveals an ongoing legacy of eugenics and reproductive injustice in the US prison system. Strength of resistance is highlighted in two films: A Thousand Cuts which demands press freedom in the Philippines, and a story of LGBT oppression in Kenya, I Am Samuel.

The festival’s spotlight on Latin America highlights three urgent stories: in Mujer de Soldado marginalised women bring to trial the members of the Peruvian army who decades prior had raped and abused them with impunity; in A La Calle Venezuelans undertake extraordinary efforts to reclaim their country from the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro; and Bajo Fuego sees abandoned farmers in a coca-growing region of Colombia forced to organise and fight for a living, despite the high hopes of the country’s Peace Agreement of 2016.

Two titles explore the theme of education as an essential tool for change. Efforts by corporations to re-brand as ‘socially conscious’ and activists’ determination to pursue real change are explored in The New Corporation: An Unfortunately Necessary Sequel, the follow-up to the filmmaker’s earlier film The Corporation. In The Lesson, filmmaker Elena Horn considers the importance of quality education to avoid repeating historical wrongs when she returns to her hometown in Germany to film students learning about the Holocaust for the first time.

When it comes to choosing films, it’s important to consider who’s telling the story, explains Biaggi. ‘We think very carefully about from whose perspective we’re seeing it. It’s important to us to select films that are made by people who are based in the community affected, or have close links to it, rather than someone coming in from the outside.’

Biaggi is a firm believer in the power of cinema over all other media for sharing these issues. ‘People see more impact from watching something on screen than listening to someone talk about an issue or reading it in the newspapers. Because it’s a more visual medium Cinema enables people to empathise much more.’

Human Rights Watch Film Festival
18–26 Mar

New perspectives

‘The Barbican is the embodiment of something of a paradox,’ muses photographer and videographer Enrico Policardo (@cardopoli), who took this photo. ‘The solid concrete and imposing architecture are, in fact, a nest for life both biological – the housing, the estate, the facilities, the swimming pool, and cultural – the Barbican Centre, Guildhall and all the other institutions that are hosted inside its concrete shell.’

We love to see your photos of the Centre and estate – tag us @BarbicanCentre or use #newperspectives, and we might share yours in a future edition of the Guide.

Support the Barbican

We rely on ticket sales and your enduring support and generosity to be able to present and share our programme with you and thousands of others. We’re all finding ourselves in completely new territory, which presents a real financial challenge for us and for those we work with. So, if you’re able, please consider donating to us so we can keep investing in the artists and organisations that help make this place what it is. Please also consider donating to our artistic residents and associates to support them through these difficult times.

A blueprint for Brutalism

Discover a history of Brutalism, mapped out on a footprint of the Barbican estate, with this gorgeous artwork created by Dorothy.

Listed across the 60cm x 80cm print are over 150 influential architects, important buildings, events and publications that were key to this ‘love it/hate it’ architectural movement. From Le Corbusier’s early days and Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, to more modern works by Zahah Hadid and David Chipperfield, there’s so much to take in.

Get your print now in our online shop.

Members get 20% discount on items in our Shop, among many other benefits.

My Barbican: Peter Hope-Parry

Our Multimedia Designer produces a broad range of the visuals you see all around the Centre, as well as some of the Barbican-inspired ranges in the Shop. Discover his favourite spots around the Centre.

Theatre staircase

The Barbican is famously hard to navigate and the backstage areas are no different. To try and combat this, the Theatre staircase has been brightly colour-coded on all six floors. It makes for a nice change from the famously grey external walls (not that I don’t also love those). The stairs get me thinking about all the famous feet that have graced these corridors over the years. David Tennent has been my biggest celebrity spot so far!

Texture wall

Hidden away in the heart of the Barbican are the walls that architects, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon used as a testing ground to explore concrete textures. It’s fascinating to see the development and working that led them to the iconic texture we all know and love. Two of the craziest tests are white marble and pebbledash. You can check it out at the end of the Architecture tour if you want to see them for yourself.

Amphitheatre Seats (Beech Gardens)

This is by far my favourite summer lunch spot. The tiled amphitheatre is surrounded by a colourful urban garden nestled in-between the Barbican towers. It feels protected from the hustle and bustle of the city, up on the High Walks and is decorated with bizarre turquoise-dyed ponds (a failed attempt to try and bring Bahamas vibes to the Barbican, I reckon).

Barbican Banksy

Coincidentally I had just got back from a weekend away in Bristol the Monday morning I discovered Banksy had used our office as a canvas to (un)officially attach himself to the Basquiat exhibition (2017). This still gets a crazy amount of attention and is well worth checking out if you haven’t stumbled across it yet. You can find it on the corner, in Beech Street Tunnel leading to Golden Lane. There is also a small piece on the adjacent wall that could easily be missed.

Theatre stairs

Theatre stairs

Texture wall

Texture wall

Barbican Banksy

Barbican Banksy

With thanks

The City of London Corporation,
founder and principal funder

Centre Partner
Christie Digital

Major Supporters
Arts Council England
Esmeé Fairbairn Foundation
Sir Siegmund Warburg’s Voluntary Settlement
The National Lottery Heritage Fund
Terra Foundation for American Art
SHM Foundation

Corporate Supporters
Aberdeen Standard Investments
Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
Bank of America
Bottega Veneta
Derwent London
DLA Piper
Howden M&A Limited
Leigh Day
Linklaters LLP
Morrison & Foerster
Natrium Capital Limited
Pinsent Masons
SEC Newgate UK
Slaughter and May
Taittinger Champagne

Trusts & Grantmakers
Andor Charitable Trust
Art Fund
Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch)
Cockayne – Grants for the Arts
The London Community Foundation
Creative Europe Programme for the European Union
Edge Foundation
Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands
Europa Cinemas
Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF)
The Henry Moore Foundation
The Mactaggart Third Fund
The Nugee Foundation
Tom ap Rhys Pryce Memorial Trust

We also want to thank Barbican Patrons, donors to Name a Seat, Members, and everyone who has supported the Barbican by making a donation.

Barbican Cinema has been supported by the Culture Recovery Fund for Independent Cinemas in England which is administered by the BFI, as part of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund supporting arts and cultural organisations in England affected by the impact of COVID-19.

To find out more, visit or email [email protected]

The Barbican Centre Trust, registered charity no. 294282