‘Boss Lady’ – a profile of Cassa Pancho MBE

She has a wonderful range and sensibility, commands respect and is highly intelligent – all the right qualifications.

Boss Lady – By Jonathan Gray

Cassa Pancho sits, notebook and pen in hand, with her back propped against the large mirror of Ballet Black’s dance studio in west London; in front of her the whole company are rehearsing Arthur Pita’s A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream in advance of its upcoming London season at the Barbican Theatre and subsequent UK tour. It’s a comedy ballet that is also rigorously classical in its vocabulary, and a work that gained critical and popular acclaim when Pancho first commissioned it back in 2014. Leaning forward, legs crossed, she casts a discerning eye over the cast as they dance, taking down notes and giving verbal corrections when necessary. Some of the dancers are new to their roles, and Pancho is clear and exacting over specific points of detail in technique, as well as what she wants them to think about before the next rehearsal. She concludes, however, by saying, “Those are the notes for today… I don’t want to over-rehearse it!”

Pancho has a warm rapport with her colleagues, but although outwardly calm and easygoing, with a refreshingly open and democratic manner, she owns a funny, yet revealing nickname: “Boss Lady”. It’s entirely apt, as although Pancho is one of the most affable and approachable directors of a ballet company you are ever likely to meet, the name emphasises the determination of a woman who has sought to bring black classical ballet dancers to the fore in the UK, especially women. Sure, you can now find a handful of black dancers in any of the UK’s major ballet companies, but that wasn’t true 20 or so years ago. Would those current dancers be where they were now had it not been for Pancho’s pioneering work? I’m not so certain, because attitudes then prevalent in Britain’s ballet world needed to change.

When Ballet Black was founded in 2001, no women of colour were performing in any of the UK’s ballet companies, a fact Pancho identified when completing All things Black and Beautiful, the dissertation she wrote for her degree in classical ballet from Durham University. Then, as now, it was a bald and shocking statement, but it was something Pancho had long suspected to be true. She came to the conclusion that matters needed urgently to be taken in hand, and had a clear idea of how it could be achieved.

For years, an unacknowledged “colour bar” prevailed within the ballet world because it was believed – erroneously – that dancers of colour, particularly women, were unsuitable for a career in classical ballet. The reasons most often sited were to do with skin colour and the physical shape of the body. This uninformed (some would say racist) view was rarely spoken about publicly by those in positions of power within the ballet establishment, but it was an attitude that was maintained for years, despite evidence from ensembles like Dance Theatre of Harlem that successfully performed in the US and internationally a vast repertoire of classical ballets such as Giselle and Act II of Swan Lake. It was an attitude that had to be challenged, and so, with this in mind, Ballet Black was conceived with the hope of seeing “fundamental change in the number of black and Asian dancers in mainstream ballet companies”. Pancho’s ultimate goal was to make the very concept of Ballet Black redundant because, in future, all ballet companies would be ethnically mixed.

“It doesn’t seem that long ago when someone would say to me, ‘Surely you can’t have a black dancer in a line of white swans?’ recalls Dame Monica Mason, the former director of The Royal Ballet who is a strong supporter of Pancho’s work. “My answer was always, ‘Why not?’ Looking back on my early life in South Africa [at the time of apartheid], people were classified by the colour of their skin, and as a child I didn’t understand it. I found it very confusing. So when Cassa started Ballet Black and brought her views to the fore, and then people expressed doubts as to its relevance, I struggled with their difficulty.

“I first came across Ballet Black through Deborah Bull when she was running the ROH2 programme at the Royal Opera House, and who scheduled the company to perform there,” Dame Monica continues. “I thought Cassa and the company were inspirational and courageous. She is very demanding, and doesn’t compromise on standards, and what is wonderful is that there are so many people within the arts who actively want to work on new ballets with Cassa and the company. Not only that, the amount of educational projects Ballet Black undertakes has enormous community involvement, especially the Ballet Black Junior School that she runs in addition to the company. The dancers are absolutely convinced by everything she is doing.”

“She’s very focused,” admits Ballet Black’s physiotherapist, Richard Bolton. “She’s quick to identify who is a talker and who is a doer, and she knows how to stay on course. She’s been doing it for 17 years already. Sometimes silence speaks volumes and in the end she gets what she wants.” He chuckles as he says it, as he is also Pancho’s husband, but it’s another example of her steely determination, as well as the relaxed atmosphere that flourishes within the company’s headquarters that are based in a community centre in Marylebone.

Born in London of Trinidadian and British parents, like many little girls, Pancho dreamed of one day becoming a ballerina. She enjoyed her regular ballet classes, and showed obvious talent, going on to train at the Royal Academy of Dance. In her late teens, Pancho suffered a back injury that took two years to recover from, but this set-back did not deter her from later graduating with an honours degree in The Art and Teaching of Classical Ballet from Durham University in 2001.

Just 21 at the time she founded Ballet Black, at the beginning Pancho danced, choreographed and directed the company, performing herself on London stages that included the Linbury Studio Theatre of the Royal Opera House and the Cochrane Theatre. Despite her youth she was not daunted by her ambitions, which were to form a platform for dancers of colour, gain a UK regional audience where there was no existing audience, and find funding for the company. Alongside that, she aimed to build a distinct repertoire for the company, and in doing so commissioned 44 works over a period of 17 years from choreographers of the calibre of Richard Alston, Michael Corder, Javier De Frutos, Christopher Hampson, Shobana Jeyasingh, Martin Lawrance, Cathy Marston, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Henri Oguike, Arthur Pita and Will Tuckett, as well as encourage then fledgling talents like Jonathan Goddard, Christopher Marney, Ludovic Ondiviela, Liam Scarlett and Jonathan Watkins.

Setting up Ballet Black was a risk in the early 2000s, especially as it was an unknown company presenting programmes around the country that did not include Swan Lake. There were many hurdles to overcome, too, particularly in gaining support from funding bodies that – because Ballet Black was a ballet company and not a contemporary dance ensemble – exercised a kind of inverse snobbery against ballet because it was perceived as elitist. It was not until 2018, for example, that Ballet Black received formal NPO status from Arts Council England. Pancho has achieved all that she has with hardly any administrative support, but one of her greatest successes has been the way she has overseen the growth of the company’s audience base, which, I might add, is much more mixed than the usual classical ballet audience. Ballet Black has toured to more than 70 theatres in the UK and abroad, and has built up strong ties with the black community. Early on, like all great ballet company directors, Pancho also recognised the need to build for the future by setting up a school – the Ballet Black Junior School – along with an associate programme, which has reached out to children and families, particularly in the west London area, who felt ballet was not an option for them. Several of the children have since gone on to formal vocational dance training. As well as those budding dancers, Pancho has nurtured the development and careers of Ballet Black dancers who have since gone on to work with companies such as Víctor Ullate Ballet, Ballet am Rhein, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet, Rambert, Dance Theatre of Harlem and Suzanne Farrell Ballet.

The quality and success of Ballet Black was soon recognised. Deborah Bull made it an Associate Company of the Royal Opera House for a number of years when she was creative director, offering the company the use of the wonderful studios enjoyed by The Royal Ballet, as well as programming it to perform there, including one special occasion in 2009 when it danced for the first ladies of the G20 leaders at the London Summit, including Michelle Obama. Indeed, Bull has paid tribute to Pancho by saying: “I have nothing but admiration for her vision, ambition, passion and drive, and her insistence that while the company may be small in size, it should always aim to be great in stature.” Perhaps most spectacular was the way Pancho and the company’s achievements were celebrated in a documentary film made for the Sky Arts South Bank Show.

Ballet Black has been the recipient of a number of important award nominations, which includes being a past winner of the Best Independent Company and Outstanding Company at the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards in 2009 and 2012 respectively. Indeed, one of my greatest pleasures as editor of Dancing Times has been observing how Ballet Black has consistently flourished as an artistic enterprise. However, perhaps it is Luke Jennings, dance critic of The Observer, who has best summed up the view of most dance writers by saying: “In an age of pseudo-talent and superficial achievement, Ballet Black are the real thing: smart, serious, committed and beautiful.”

Pancho herself has not gone unrewarded, for she gained an MBE in 2013 for services to classical ballet, and in 2018 she was awarded the Freedom of the City of London, a fitting tribute to this West London born, bred and educated woman with a vision. She is also a vice president of the London Ballet Circle and patron of Central School of Ballet, is a member of the consortium for Ballet Now (Birmingham Royal Ballet), has acted as a judge on the BBC Young Dancer Award and made numerous appearances in the media, including on television and on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Despite these achievements, however, Pancho feels her ultimate ambition of making Ballet Black redundant is still some way off. “When I started, I thought it would take about 20 years to get there,” she tells me, “but now I think it may take another 20.” She has overseen great advances in making ballet in the UK more integrated, but Pancho is scornful of those who pay lip service to diversity in ballet, especially ones in positions of authority who see it as nothing more than a box-ticking exercise. One advance in the immediate future is the soon-to-be-launched pointe shoe for dancers of colour, developed by Freed in collaboration with Pancho and senior artist, Cira Robinson. The company will also be appearing in Viviana Durante’s Steps Back In Time, a celebration of Kenneth MacMillan at the Barbican Theatre in April 2018 alongside dancers from The Royal Ballet and Scottish Ballet.

The work of Ballet Black’s Boss Lady is not yet complete, then, but Dame Monica is one person who has no doubts as to Pancho’s capabilities. “She is generous and treats her dancers like responsible adults, and I think her abilities are extraordinary; it would be a very natural progression for her to one day run another major ballet company. She has a wonderful range and sensibility, commands respect and is highly intelligent – all the right qualifications. She has worked so hard, so devotedly, and with such dignity.
“It seems to me that everything about Ballet Black is positive,” she concludes, “and I don’t see anything negative in Cassa’s aspirations. I wanted Cassa to succeed in giving opportunities to people who might not otherwise discover the joy of being a professional classical ballet dancer. Traditions have to develop or they die, and she is on a mission to demonstrate that in ballet, with all its demands and disciplines, excellence exists irrespective of ethnicity.”

Jonathan Gray is editor of Dancing Times, the world’s longest-running magazine devoted to dance.