‘PEOPLE STILL DON’T LIKE THE IDEA OF A BLACK BALLERINA’
Cira Robinson, Ballet Black’s principal dancer, on humble beginnings, overcoming elitism, and building true inclusivity.
By Natalie Morris
September 22 2022
‘Ballet fell in love with me before I fell in love with it,’ says Cira Robinson, principal dancer at Ballet Black. She’s slightly out of breath, having rushed directly from the rehearsal room to speak with me on the phone in an echoey corridor. In the background, there are snatches of music and broken bites of conversation as artists move between studios. Cira finds a deserted room and closes the door with a soft click.
The rehearsal schedule in the week leading up to a performance is intense, but after close to two decades in the industry, Cira knows how to conserve her energy. Two days out from the world premiere of a new piece entitled Momentum – performed at Sadler’s Wells on September 17th – she is itching to get on stage, the passion for her title role as Eve is palpable. She’s ready to show London what she can do. For Cira, ballet is as natural as breathing, it flows through her movements, her postures, even the way she talks, but in her early life she never dreamed of being a dancer – she wanted to act.
‘I was auditioning for a performing arts school where you had to kind of do everything,’ says Cira. ‘I really wanted my major to be drama. But on that day, I bombed it. At the next audition – I remember I was just wearing a T-shirt and my brother’s baggy shorts – I was able to touch my toes to my forehead. So, I got into the dance programme. I started dancing extremely late.’
‘Extremely late’ in the world of dance, means eight years old. Cira was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and never expected that her career would lead her to dance on some of the biggest stages around the world. In fact, she didn’t necessarily expect to leave the country at all.
‘Without being exposed to dance, I doubt I would have even had a passport, I would never have seen all these beautiful countries,’ she says. ‘Dance gave me discipline, hard work ethic, social skills. It has undoubtedly moulded me as a human being.’
As well as the artistic passion and the global opportunities, there was a more base-level appeal that kept Cira in dance too, she happened to be brilliant at it. Hearing that felt good.
‘At around the age of 13, I had a teacher who said that I moved my arm beautifully,’ recalls Cira. ‘In that moment, I just thought, “oh, I can get positive feedback from this.” I remember thinking, “OK, what else can I get compliments on?” Which sounds bad.’
After graduating from the School for Creative and Performing Arts in 2004, Cira moved to NYC as an apprentice with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. After a few months, she became a full member and performed many works from the DTH repertoire under the guidance of Arthur Mitchell.
In these early days of her career, Cira rarely had to think about race. The fact of her Blackness was incidental. In Cincinnati and then later in New York, the rehearsal spaces were diverse and varied, Black and white dancers trained together in the studio and Cira never found herself in a situation where she was ‘the only one’. However, the elitism of professional dance touched Cira’s development in other ways. Money was an issue from the beginning, and it was the girls with parents who could pay for additional classes, programmes and retreats who were always pegged for stardom.
‘I never thought that I could do it as a career,’ says Cira. ‘Not like the others. Those girls were some of my best friends, but I knew very early on that our upbringings weren’t the same. It’s quite uncanny to think back because all those girls who were the best in the class and had every opportunity and advantage that I didn’t, they don’t dance anymore. And yet I am on this path that I never thought I would be on.’
In 2008, Cira moved to London to join Ballet Black, founded by Cassa Pancho in 2001. The company celebrates dancers of Black and Asian descent with the aim of making a fundamental change in the diversity of classical ballet in Britain. Immediately, she sensed a difference in tone compared to the US. Here, she was a Black ballerina. Here, she stood out in every room she entered.
‘To be honest, it was uncomfortable at first,’ Cira tells me. ‘I knew what I had to offer as a ballerina going into a predominantly white open ballet class, but there was always judgement there. They made it clear that I was stepping into their territory. iIt’s not until the end of class, after they see that I am technically sound, after they have seen what I can do, that’s when the pleasantries come in. You can’t help but notice these things, especially being a dark-skinned Black woman.’
Ballet Black was a natural home for Cira. She says she felt like she was joining an ‘underdog’ company, a space that closely reflected what she was used to in Harlem and Cincinnati. The work began immediately, with Cira taking on lead roles in the company’s narrative and more abstract works, from A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Arthur Pita) to Ingoma (Mthuthuzeli November). In 2009, she joined the teaching staff of the Ballet Black Junior School and Associate Programme, giving up her Saturdays to teach the next generation. In 2014, she received her first nomination for Outstanding Classical Performer at the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards. She was nominated again in 2021 for Best Female Performer. In 2019, she performed with Stormzy on the main stage at Glastonbury.
‘Being in such an incredible company, having pieces of work made for me with all these wonderful choreographers, I didn’t have time to look at all the obstacles around me,’ says Cira. ‘All I could focus on was just about the positivity of it all. Of course, I knew there are still people who don’t like the idea of Black ballerina. I didn’t want to focus on changing people’s opinions because I know what my purpose is – representation.
‘I have taught at the Ballet Black Junior School for almost 13 years, and representation is such an important part of that. That’s what I want to give the kids that I teach, I don’t want them to go out into the world and ever doubt that they could do this because of their skin.’
Ballet Black was founded 19 years ago, but what frustrates Cira is that many people – even people within the industry – still act like they are a new or temporary fad. She doesn’t want two decades of progress to be erased or minimsed in this way.
‘The funny thing is that we have won awards and people still say, “Oh, I just heard about the company.” To find us you still have to dive into the deep darkness of Google, we pop up, but only after pictures of Black ballerinas. But it’s like a unicorn. We’ve always been here, but not everybody’s brain was on that level,’ says Cira. ‘I wouldn’t say people got on our level and started to think about the diversity in their companies until 2020. Until George Floyd. Until other dancers of colour around the world were calling out their directors for unfair treatment. But in that moment it felt like – “hold up, you’re putting me on the poster now, but I’m not dancing the part.”
It’s a feeling Black people across all industries and walks of life will recognise. The disappointed, yet predictable backwards steps after the tokenistic gestures of inclusion that took place during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. In the dance world, this felt particularly galling for Cira and her company, having spent years trying to get the industry to listen to the very messages that were suddenly being used for social media clout.
‘We’ve been preaching it. Inclusion, diversity, all that, for years,’ says Cira. ‘It is what the company is based on. Now that you’re getting called out, or a travesty has happened on the other side of the world, now you’re rallying for people to wake up – but this has always been here. There have always been obstacles for people of colour in the arts, but especially in the dance world, and especially in ballet. Because ultimately, there are people out there who still think that this is not for us.’
As important as representation and inspiring the next generation is to Cira, her work to build greater inclusivity in dance and ballet is also incredibly tangible. In 2016, Cira asked her usual ballet shoe shop if they could custom make some brown pointe shoes for her, fed up with ‘pancaking’ pale pink shoes with makeup to match her skin tone. When they said it wasn’t possible, she trawled London’s fabric shops to find the perfect shade.
‘Too often, Black people take whatever we can get because we think that’s enough, and sometimes it’s not enough,’ says Cira. ‘If you really want the ballet world to evolve and be a lot more inclusive, you have to mirror it after what the world actually looks like, and that is not entirely “European pink”.’
This realisation led to a collaboration between Cira, Freed of London and Ballet Black to create the first brown and bronze pointe shoes, ballet shoes and tights ever manufactured in the UK. It may seem like a small step, but it is these small but crucial barriers in ballet that maintain the status-quo of whitewashed elitism.
‘If you can’t get your head around Black ballerinas in 2022, then mind your business,’ says Cira. ‘If I’m not affecting you, if I’m not taking money from your pockets, or taking opportunities away from your children. If I’m not taking away your pink pointe shoes and tights, it’s really none of your business. There are still too many predominantly white ballet companies out there. Either support us or keep it moving.’
Cira is guest artist with Fabula Collective, a diverse and international community of new and world class artists whose mission is to create work that transcends country, language, era, and culture, and to be a catalyst for long-term, deep creative connections.