Cassa Pancho, the founder and director of Ballet Black, talks about the company’s first 20 years, the virus, trolls and Black Lives Matter
Interview by Deborah Weiss
June 25th 2020
I have been keen to interview Cassa Pancho for many years – she has, quite literally, changed the path of British ballet. Timing is everything, and I’ m pleased that she has agreed to talk to me during the COVID-19 lockdown and is willing to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement.
The recent BBC4 documentary film about the company, Ballet Black: The Waiting Game, shows snippets of a new work by Mthuthuzeli November, company dancer and choreographer, based on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. They were just one week away from going on stage at the Barbican.
DW: So what happened?
CP: It was pretty bad, in the sense that we were so close to getting the Barbican part of the tour done – so that was footage, reviews, critics and photos of the double bill. The thing that you didn’t see in the film was that Will Tuckett’s new ballet, Then and Now, was also about to be premiered. We had this double bill of new ballets. I believe our lighting rig is still up at the Barbican because it was hung and then the theatre was shut down. We were just so very close to getting the set up too which is important to us when we’re on the road. The good thing is that we had these new ballets ready. I know a lot of other companies were about to start work on projects and couldn’t do them, but we have two brand new ballets which we can reopen with.
DW: So they will be ready to perform once they are re-rehearsed – but what about planning for the next season?
CP: Our company size means that we are quite good at adapting to last minute situations. This virus was obviously something that none of us could have predicted on our various risk assessments and business plans for the future. After the Barbican was cancelled, we thought we might just get in some of our spring tour. As we learnt more and more about COVID we saw the spring tour slipping away. We would have toured this double bill until July and then after our summer break, continued to tour it throughout the autumn until December (while we started working on a new ballet for the next Barbican season.) We thought, we’ve lost our spring tour, but we have a very busy autumn, let’s look forward to that. Now, of course, we just don’t know if theatres will open this side of Christmas. We regularly tour to the same theatres so we’re hoping we will be able to work something out. We just don’t know whether people will be able to sit – appropriately socially distanced – or whether it just won’t make financial sense. We have to sort the ‘noise’ from the facts. I’m not sure that we have that many facts about what we can and can’t do in terms of rehearsing. We could probably figure out a way to rehearse, but how do we get from our homes to the studio without using public transport? I’ve listened to some of what companies in Europe are doing. Maybe having six people in class, cleaning everything afterwards, waiting an hour before the next six can come in and then completely disinfecting again and waiting another hour. Ballet Black just cannot do that!
DW: How is morale?
CP: Initially, we were so disappointed when the Barbican was cancelled but I think because the government was so woolly about everything, we were left in a position of having to decide whether or not we could try and put the show on. Then the Opera House closed – everything tumbled from there. But at that point we still thought we’d come back for the spring tour. Normally we’d do the Barbican and then the dancers would have a two-week holiday so at first it seemed like they just had a three week holiday. Then we went into proper lockdown. A lot of our dancers are from foreign countries and they would have been travelling home and then suddenly – all of that was off the table. The two-week holiday gave us a chance to see what other people were doing and we set up classes on Zoom. We just felt like we couldn’t control anything so rather than have endless meetings discussing when we could get back and then everything changing again, we just say hi to each other and do class every day. I’ve also been running the school. Zoom is actually more tiring in some ways than the ‘real’ version, logistically.
DW: Any hope of a time frame to return?
CP: From the people I’ve been speaking to, we’re really looking at 2021. You know what, Ballet Black has been through some very rough times in our 20 years. What has made this slightly more bearable is that we’re all in the same boat. Often when we’ve been up against it, we’ve felt very alone. Now, whether your company has a hundred dancers or eight, we’re all facing the same prospects together. So that has meant that this specific situation is not so isolating. We just need to keep up the training as much as we can, keep an eye on the future and think of different ways to present our work. For me, even if we have no theatre to go to, once we can be in a room together, rehearsing – that will be better.
We had already been thinking about how we were going to start filming more in 2021/22 and now we’ve just had to bring all that thinking forward. We just have to evolve with it.
DW: After Glastonbury and Stormzy last year, Ballet Black received a lot of trolls, social media abuse?
CP: Yes, it’s a combination of things. There are racist people and there are ignorant people. And there are bots who go on social media and generate negative comments about anything. It doesn’t matter what it is. After the BBC4 documentary, I went on Woman’s Hour [UK BBC Radio 4, 27 May 2020] with Cira [Robinson] and I got abuse for that as well.
Before the Stormzy/Glastonbury event, the new [pointe] shoes had come out and we got messages saying things like: ‘it’s disgusting, your shoes will look like there’s shit on them; shoes are pink because all ballet costumes are pink so the shoes should match the costume; we have educated you and you still want more – go back to where you came from, go back to Africa; don’t culturally appropriate ballet from us, ballet is white.’ Then after Stormzy – and bearing in mind that we have never ‘wept’ for brown ballet shoes, we’ve never begged for them – a lot of the tone was: ‘why are you crying about brown ballet shoes when you should be doing something about knife crime.’ You need a map for that kind of logic. Anything that they perceive to be black is lumped in together. Such as – all knife crime is perpetrated by black kids; anything [bad] you do is a black problem.
DW: What about the abuse after Woman’s Hour?
CP: Well, I don’t think these people listen to the show. I think they’re people that have a problem with women having an hour long programme. I got comments about the fact that I was female, ethnic, southern, painfully middle-class – that was one of them and then: ‘why is there Woman’s Hour? Where’s Man’s Hour and if I [Pancho] don’t agree with Man’s Hour then I’m a ‘sick f••k’ because I obviously don’t truly want equality, I only want some equality.’ The race card is always played. I share them on Twitter because I want people to understand. If there needs to be a Man’s Hour, don’t abuse a woman who’s been on Woman’s Hour for 8 or 10 minutes. Don’t go to Woman’s Hour either – go to the BBC! They don’t know me. Going on Woman’s Hour and promoting better lives for black kids does not negate better lives for white kids. We are talking about two different things that both need to be discussed.
DW: Tell me how you feel about everything that has happened since George Floyd’s murder.
CP: It’s difficult because I feel very uneasy about anyone shining a light on black organisations, if we remember where this all came from. Unfortunately, we see black people murdered too much on film. It’s not necessarily in entertainment/dramas, but it’s being consumed, it’s out there and we see it too often. I think perhaps it was a combination of the clarity of the shots from the video, there was no denying what was going on and we’re all in lockdown so we’re not distracted by normal things that are usually going on. I think a lot of people would have seen that and thought it was awful and then moved on but [because of being in lockdown] it’s become a moment in history. For black and brown people, we see it too often. We see police stopping the black person, then it escalates and ends in death. The jogger that was shot, Ahmaud Arbery, although he had jogged in the neighbourhood for years, unarmed and not carrying anything – they thought he was a burglar. For every black or brown person, you’re seeing this happening to, it’s someone who looks like you or your father. I think if we saw white women being shot the way we see black people being shot; the horror would last for such a long time. Not that I think women have a great time of it, by the way. I think there is something about becoming numb to seeing black people being killed by police.
DW: Do you think the Black Lives Matter movement has started to change things?
CP: I’m hopeful but you cannot deny that in Britain alone, more black people are subjected to stop and search. Even though they’re in the minority, the government still haven’t dealt with the Windrush scandal and there are still repercussions of that within the black community. We can’t forget what has happened to the people of Grenfell Tower. They’ve appointed Munira Mirza to set up a race commission but until we get the government standing up and saying this needs to change – I’m just not sure. We need greater awareness. There has been a shift, but since we’ve been going in the last 20 years, the dance scene hasn’t changed dramatically – what length of time will it take to make a significant change? I have ‘hope’ and I’m hoping for the best, but I’m prepared for the worst.
DW: How do you think Black Lives Matter will affect your company?
CP: It’s interesting that it’s all happening when no one can go and see a show. Once we’d done Stormzy/Glastonbury – our audience figures went up. People who had never seen ballet before suddenly thought – what, there’s a ballet company for black dancers?
DW: What are you feeling positive about?
CP: Looking forward to getting back on the road, glad we don’t have to have any uncomfortable conversations [about redundancies] because it’s just the dancers and me. We’re tiny, by ballet standards – we’re a lean, mean machine anyway and we need to get the dancers back into the studio and performance ready. We are lucky that we have very supportive organisations behind us like the Barbican. The important thing to remember is that ballet is not a separate issue to British society – class plays a role, as well as racism – but it’s about equality of opportunity. Ballet has been so focused on the body, how good the feet are and not how do we get everyone, from all walks of life into ballet. It’s the building of audiences, that it’s great for fitness, for posture and musicality, discipline, working with other people. It’s a life changing thing. All we’re saying is that the path for black ballet dancers is not the same.
I am horrified to discover that the day after we had this conversation, someone posted something utterly repellent on the Ballet Black Instagram. Among other hugely insulting remarks, the offender, who doesn’t punctuate, writes: ‘they ain’t built for ballet. also, who the f**k wants to see a black onstage with a ballet company? They stand out like a pig in a paddock full of stallions.’
Pancho’s gracious, magnanimous response finishes with, ‘But I’m deleting the original post because this negative abuse is not what defines Ballet Black. It’s a distraction.
We are defined by our work and our own excellence.’
Whilst this kind of abuse is appalling and shocking – it’s real. There is still work to be done and it is people like Cassa Pancho who proactively ring the changes necessary to bring this art form to audiences everywhere.