“I think you should go and do stuff,” says Cassa Pancho, artistic director of Ballet Black, “and not necessarily talk about it so much.” Well, she has certainly done “stuff”. Back in 2001, newly graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, she founded a company for classical dancers of black and Asian descent. Though it has received no regular government funding, the company has to date commissioned some 40 ballets, toured nationally and internationally, and was named best independent company in the 2012 National Dance Awards. Since 2002, Ballet Black has also run a dance school for children, and an associate programme for teenagers and young professionals. No doubt, Pancho has done stuff – but why? Time to talk, I think.
if black and Asian dancers were going to get into companies, they had at least to be able to picture themselves in a class
“It started at college,” Pancho explains. “I was planning a dissertation about black women in British ballet and I couldn’t find a single dancer to interview. It really shocked me at the time. I ended up interviewing male black ballet dancers and black contemporary dancers.” She wondered why that was. “I looked at the marketing for ballet schools and classes and at that time – and I do think things have changed somewhat – they all showed white teachers and white students.” So it was, at least in part, an image problem: if black and Asian dancers were going to get into companies, they had at least to be able to picture themselves in a class. That became a spur for Pancho: she wanted to change the picture.
It’s far from the whole picture, though. “I’m not actually that political,” says Pancho, “and I thought that having this particular company of dancers was statement enough. Instead, we really focused on building the repertoire, making interesting work. That became our driving force.” Pancho cast her net both high and wide, commissioning works from well-known choreographers such as Richard Alston, William Tuckett and Mark Bruce, and as well as newcomers and “outliers” (Liam Scarlett, now in demand around the world, was one of Ballet Black’s first discoveries, back in 2007). It’s this programming that has really drawn audiences, critics, and indeed the company’s own dancers, many of whom would never have the opportunity to work so broadly or creatively within the narrower confines of a traditional ballet company.
For her current bill, Pancho has chosen to revive Christopher Hampson’s 2012 Storyville, to Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, about a country girl led astray in the city. “Both dancers and audiences loved that piece,” she remembers. “Audiences even said it was too short!” They’ll be pleased to know that Hampson has now added new material and filled out some scenes.
Also on the programme are two new pieces. Christopher Marney will be creating his fourth company work, following wide-ranging pieces that included a war story, a sentimental journey and the tale of a dancing dog. Arthur Pita, known for his darkly surreal theatrical works, promises something altogether different in a duet to Steve Reich’s classic minimalist score, Drumming.
“Our audience is very diverse,” adds Pancho, “which I think is reflective of what’s on stage. We also get a lot of people who have never been to ballet. I guess they must feel comfortable coming to see us.” So she’s changing the picture of the audience, too.
The new triple bill from Ballet Black opens at the Barbican Centre, London, 18 March 2016, and is on tour until 22 June 2016. Click here for tour dates and places.