The New York Times, 25th April 2022

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By Precious Adesina
25th April 2022

At Ballet Black, Creating Opportunity for British Dancers
The company was founded 20 years ago for dancers of colour, who are often shut out of the British classical dance world.


LONDON — In 2019, the rapper Stormzy used his headline set at Glastonbury Festival to talk about ballet shoes.

As his track “Don’t Cry for Me” played, two dancers performed a duet onstage and a large screen behind them read “Ballet shoes have traditionally not been made to match Black skin tones, until now.”

The dancers, Cira Robinson and Mthuthuzeli November, wearing brown tights and shoes, were members of the British company Ballet Black, which had worked with the shoe company Freed of London the year before to create ballet shoes for different skin tones.

The Glastonbury moment went viral, and it is typical of Ballet Black’s work over the last two decades creating diverse performances that blend classical ballet with contemporary culture.

Stormzy had been shocked to discover that dancers of colour previously had to hand-dye pink shoes themselves before performances, Cassa Pancho, Ballet Black’s founder, said in a recent interview.

Pancho knows such challenges for British dancers all too well. She started Ballet Black — which recently turned 20 — after attending the Royal Academy of Dance in London. Pancho, who has a white mother and a Trinidadian father, said she hadn’t given her race much thought before attending the school.

Once there, Pancho was “shocked at the lack of people of colour around me, and that in the eyes of this school, I was considered to be a person of colour,” she said. “It just made me think about the Black women in British ballet, their experiences, and what challenges they come up against.” She researched those experiences for her undergraduate degree dissertation, which led to the creation of Ballet Black when she was 21.

In Britain, there are still very few Black people in the top professional ballet companies. So few, in fact, that Pancho was able to name each person and the company they dance for off the top of her head. “I could not name every white ballerina,” she added.

Sandie Bourne, whose doctoral thesis looked at the history and experience of Black ballet dancers in Britain, said this lack of diversity in the industry begins very early on, when dancers are still in school.

Bourne’s 2017 research found that across four major British ballet companies — the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Northern Ballet, the Royal Ballet and the English National Ballet Company — 2.2 percent of employed dancers were Black.

When Robinson, a senior artist at Ballet Black, moved from the United States to Britain to join the company in 2008, she also noticed the lack of diversity in other British ballet companies.

“I felt like it was 10 years behind America,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of progression, but the numbers are still not where they should be.”

“It’s missing the major factor of inclusivity and proper representation of how the world is today.” she said.

American ballet companies with a focus on diversity have been around for half a century, most notably Dance Theater of Harlem, created by the dancer and choreographer Arthur Mitchell in 1969. In the subsequent decades, many dancers of colour in Britain were struggling to find work. Mitchell came over to the U.K. to perform and would also recruit dancers, Bourne said, “so many dancers went to the Dance Theater of Harlem because there weren’t opportunities in the U.K.”

Julie Felix was one of those dancers. In the ’70s, when she was in the final year of her ballet training, she was offered an apprenticeship at what is now the English National Ballet, Felix said in a phone interview. At the end of it, “the director at the time said that she would like to offer me a contract, but I would mess up the corps de ballet because of the colour of my skin,” Felix said. She was offered a job at Dance Theater of Harlem, and left Britain.

Mitchell’s company was founded with two ideas in mind, Virginia Johnson, a former dancer at the company and now its artistic director, said in an interview. Mitchell “was very much engaged in finding a way to help the people of his home community of Harlem have a better life,” Johnson said. “But he also wanted to directly address the issue of classical ballet as something that belonged exclusively to one class or race of people. He wanted to show that ballet was an art form that belonged to everyone.”

When it was founded 20 years ago, Ballet Black struggled with a tight budget and was ignored by the wider British dance world, Pancho said. “Then, they thought we were a nuisance, and people didn’t like the name,” she said. “At about the 10-year mark, people realized that we were not going anywhere.”

Today, Ballet Black is widely respected by the global dance world and has patrons like the actress Thandiwe Newton and Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director of the Young Vic theater. But, Pancho said, it can still be difficult for Black dance work to get the mainstream reception it deserves.

The company has grown to offer dancers and choreographers of colour an array of opportunities to showcase their talents. “Whether you were Black or white, we became the home of up-and-coming choreographers,” Pancho said, since the bigger ballet companies “typically stage traditional repertoire.”

In March, Ballet Black performed at the Barbican Center to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary. The second act, a performance called “Black Sun,” by the South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma, incorporated drumming, singing and movement associated with African traditions. It got a standing ovation from the predominately Black audience, but was less appreciated by some of the white critics who attended.

“It’s conceptually opaque,” one wrote of Maqoma’s choreography; the piece’s “hyperactive and hyperbolic imagery, from intense ritual to stories of the supernatural (I’m guessing here), is baffling,” another critic found; “It isn’t necessarily easy to get a foothold in it,” another said. The first performance, “Say It Loud,” by Pancho, took a more traditional approach to ballet and it was better received.

In much of the British dance world, tradition continues to be prioritized over works that might be accessible to a broader audience. “By restricting the appreciation of the art form to one group, one class, one race, you’re depriving ballet of its full expression,” Johnson said. “The world needs to have people of colour in this art form.”