Changing the scene by Zoë Anderson

Changing the scene

From adventurous choreography to the shoes on the dancers’ feet, Ballet Black is transforming the dance landscape. Zoë Anderson finds out how they do it.

When it comes to choreography, Ballet Black has always punched far above its weight. The company has an enviable record of new ballets. It’s not just the sheer number of commissions, or the range and variety of dancemakers – from senior figures such as Richard Alston and Shobana Jeyasingh to young company member Mthuthuzeli November. It’s also that works created for this small, agile company are so often among the choreographers’ strongest.

Two recent examples are Cathy Marston, who won a National Dance Award for her Ballet Black work The Suit, and Arthur Pita, whose A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream shows him at his best. These are both busy, successful choreographers, and for both, these are standout works. Founded to present dancers of black and Asian descent, Ballet Black has also become a home for dancemakers.

So how do they do it? How does the company get the best out of people? “We take away all your toys,” jokes company founder Cassa Pancho. She’s describing the company’s tightly-focused, stripped-down approach, and its financial restrictions. “There’s such a razor-thin budget to make these pieces that you can’t hide behind a set, elaborate costume, an orchestra.” Productions have to be packed into a single crate and fit onto small as well as large stages. Some venues don’t have room for an orchestra, even if the company had the budget for one.

“Every time they say, ‘I need this,’ I have to say, ‘You can’t have it!’ It forces you, poverty forces creativity. You have to keep your eye on the ball, which is choreography. I think it’s as simple as that.” She admits she finds it hard to keep saying ‘no’, but the discipline has benefits as well as challenges.

Then there’s the company’s own tight focus. “It makes people a little bit vulnerable. In the room, it’s me, the choreographer and the dancers. We haven’t got ten people sitting along the front, correcting every little finger. But they get absolutely everything from the dancers, and from me. I think that in turn makes them give everything they’ve got. It’s always a highly charged atmosphere.” That can be stressful, she admits. “Then the light of the Barbican shines, and you get to opening night and it’s all fine. But sometimes the way to it is very intense.”

Creating new work has been part of the company’s DNA from the beginning. In the early days, it was a matter of necessity. When she founded the company in 2001, Pancho explains, “I certainly had no access to other repertoire.”

The company’s first choreographers included Pancho herself and colleague Denzil Bailey. An important turning point came through Deborah Bull, the former Royal Ballet dancer who went on to direct ROH2, as the Royal Opera House’s new work strand was then called. “She not only said, ‘Come and use the studio space here at the weekend,’ instead of paying for where we were, she said, ‘You need to meet this young guy called Liam Scarlett. He’s just leaving The Royal Ballet School, and he’s a really good choreographer. He needs to get out of the Royal Ballet school and company bubble and see what other dancers are like, and you need work.’” That was the first time dance critics really paid attention.”

As more commissions followed, Pancho honed her own skill in programme building. “It became a way for me to have work that was really good for the company. I was able to say, ‘I need a duet that’s ten minutes, I need a 20-minute piece for six dancers’. It just suited us so well. At that time, not many people were commissioning ballet choreographers, so we were one of the only places where you could get your work put on at the Opera House. That made us very popular with choreographers.”

As she built a repertoire, Pancho also learned how to challenge as well as support the choreographers she commissioned. Now, she says, “You’ve got to ask why. Why are you walking across the stage, why do you have a ten-minute solo, why are you repeating all of this again, why, why, why? Have you said everything you need to – and if you have, be quiet and go away! I’d rather the ballet were 20 minutes and you said everything than tacking on an extra ten minutes of repetition.

“When I started Ballet Black, I was younger than everybody coming in. It was really hard to tell an older gentleman choreographer that I thought his ballet was going on too long.” Still, the experience has paid off. All new work is a risk, but Ballet Black’s commissions tend to be taut and disciplined: the company is admirably short on waffle.

At the same time, it’s highly versatile. Grounded in classical ballet technique, its fearless dancers seem ready for anything. Alston and Jeyasingh came from contemporary dance to the company; Robert Hylton brought his hip hop style. The dancers are just at home with tasking, in which choreographers ask them to develop material, as they are with being given the steps. “They can switch,” Pancho explains, “and I think that’s quite rare. People are starting to demand that more from dancers, but we’ve been doing it a lot longer, because we didn’t have any money for so long! We’ve just got really good at it. It’s expected of them, and they expect to do it.”

They not only expect it, they thrive on it. Mthuthuzeli November speaks with particular warmth of working with Richard Alston Dance Company’s Martin Lawrance on Captured, made in 2012. When it was revived, Lawrance “obviously saw it differently to the first time,” November explains. “He wanted to put the new people – I was one of the new people – into it, and mould it, change what it means today. He allowed us to recreate it with him.”

Over and over again, guest companies praise the dancers’ gift for collaboration. “Ballet Black has a reputation for delivering excellence on stage,” says Christopher Hampson, director of Scottish Ballet, who created Storyville for the company in 2012. “Less known is the excellence delivered during the creative process.” Each new work, he explains, “builds on the experiences of Ballet Black and, in turn, gives choreographers the best dance artists to be working with.”

“In the confinement of the tiniest dance studio I’ve ever worked in, the passion and dedication of the eight dancers of Ballet Black was overflowing generously,” agrees Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who created Red Riding Hood for the company in 2017. Her account of the process underlines the company’s creative range: “Hard work, perseverance, playfulness and a sense of purpose.”

Marston also praises their generosity. “It is important to me that the movement comes from the inside out and my working methods often involve the dancers developing movement vocabulary alongside me. I have very much enjoyed Ballet Black’s partnership in this process.”

She was particularly thrilled by November’s contributions. He is from South Africa – where Can Themba’s 1963 short story “The Suit” is set – and was able to share his knowledge of social dances from the period. November is 25, born decades after the era of the story – but, he says, “I’m from that environment, it’s still very much alive.” Marston had started with ideas of jazz dance, with American influences. November shared “the social dances of the 50s, the dances that my parents did – dances that are old, but we make new versions. I would create the original South African version, then show her, and she would take that and reinterpret it.”

It’s a process that deepened Marston’s response to the story. “For me as a dancer/choreographer, observing that process, I was very cautious and worried about her staying true to the South African environment,” November admits. “I think she did that really well. And she made it a universal story, like it was written – it’s written in a way that anybody can put themselves into it.”

Audiences clearly find Ballet Black easier to relate to than many other dance companies. The company is helping to transform ballet’s traditionally very white image – from the dancers on stage to its collaboration with dancewear maker Freed, who have now created a range of pointe shoes to suit darker skin tones. The company is shifting an art form that tends to default to pale pink satin – and finding new audiences as it does so. In London and on tour, the company attracts a more diverse public, more young people and first-timers, while also developing a loyal repeat audience.

With INGOMA, November’s new work, Ballet Black takes another step forward. As in the early days, they’ll be dancing a work created from within the company. “One thing that’s important to me about Mthuthu making a ballet is that, when I started Ballet Black, the goal was to repopulate the landscape,” Pancho says. “It’s taken 18 years, but we now have a black classical choreographer. He’s making a ballet in a supportive setting, but it’s not going to a tiny little theatre, it’s going on to the Barbican main stage.

“The other dancers – two are on a teacher training course, one’s going to be a masseuse, one is into design, one likes lighting. At some point, maybe they’ll all retire out into something else in the dance and theatre world, and that will just change the colour a little bit. And the next ones will change it further.”

Zoë Anderson has been the dance critic of the Independent, and as a freelance critic has written for the Independent on Sunday and the Daily Telegraph, and Dancing Times