The Observer, 10th March 2013

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Ballet Black – review
Linbury Studio theatre, London
by Luke Jennings, The Observer, Sunday 10 March 2013

Last month, Cassa Pancho, the founder and director of Ballet Black, went to Buckingham Palace to collect the MBE she’d been awarded in the New Year honours list for services to dance. The 34-year-old Anglo-Trinidadian was delighted to receive the award, but the presentation ceremony was not the most relaxing of occasions. “I had an enormous hole in my tights which I tried to cover up with my Alice Temperley dress,” Pancho remembers. “And my hair seemed to be going sideways.”

Talking to the woman in front of her in the queue to curtsey to Prince Charles, Pancho discovered that she was a long-time fan of Ballet Black. It was a heartening illustration of the company’s popularity, and of Pancho’s achievement in maintaining a ballet company against all odds, and with microscopic funding, since 2001. Her aim throughout has been to provide a showcase for black and Asian dancers who didn’t want to spend their careers languishing in big-company corps de ballet. Ballet Black is a pocket-sized concern of just eight dancers, but every one is a soloist. Technically the standard is variable, but then the project has always been about inspiration, not about trying to outpoint the Royal Ballet.

Perhaps the most impressive of Pancho’s achievements is that over the years she has commissioned more than 30 danceworks. Her latest programme is typically varied. The most accomplished piece is The One Played Twice by Javier de Frutos. To a suite of Hawaiian songs, the oldest dating back to the mid-19th century, De Frutos crafts a sequence of dances whose swaying rhythms and melancholy undercurrents perfectly fuse with the retro vibe into which the BB dancers seem to be able to slip at will. Sarah Kundi, in particular, only really looks fully dressed with a hibiscus blossom in her pin curls.

De Frutos doesn’t let things get too aloha. The costumes, which he has designed himself – tunics, wraparound skirts – seem to reference ancient Egypt. He gives us fragrant pairings and trios, and at intervals casts his dancers across the stage like dice, allowing them to resolve into precisely composed friezes. Solos for Kundi and Kanika Carr see the dancers rooted to the stage like undersea plants, their upper bodies and arms in constant motion. In a yearning duet, Kundi wraps herself around Damien Johnson like a vine, but is left bereft.

Christopher Marney’s War Letters is another affecting work. Set to compositions by Shostakovich and Glenn Miller, it portrays American GIs departing for war, and the women they leave behind. Marney has danced extensively for Matthew Bourne, and it shows in the economy of means with which he establishes character, blending classical line and dancehall style with unforced ease. Designer Gary Harris’s service-dress khakis and period frocks are spot-on, and the detailing is impeccable, from the men’s buzz cuts to the women’s victory rolls and Rosie the Riveter up-dos (year on year, Ballet Black gets this column’s award for best hair).

If two other works (by Robert Binet and Ludovic Ondiviela) are less successful, they demonstrate Pancho’s unflagging preparedness to take a chance on young choreographers. Given this contribution, it’s disappointing that her company receives no public funding except for a tiny stipend from the Royal Opera House, who allow the dancers to use their studios on Sundays. This down-time access has proved a life-saver, but if Ballet Black is to continue to transmit the message that classical dance is for everyone, they need forward-looking Arts Council support. The cultural dividend would be immeasurable.

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