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Frieze London 2021

Ballet Black: Then and Now

Cassa Pancho takes stock of how the landscape has changed for dancers of colour since she started Ballet Black in 2001

BY Emily May AND Cassa Pancho in Frieze London , Frieze Week Magazine , Interviews | 12 OCT 21

Emily May: Which performance made you fall in love with ballet?

Cassa Pancho: I remember going to the Royal Opera House to see William Forsythe’s Steptext (1985) in 1995. There weren’t any tutus, pink tights or big dramatic gestures. Instead, the focus was on the bone, muscle and determination of the dancers. I already knew I wanted to work in ballet, but Steptext altered my perception of what the art form could be.

EM: Do you have a favourite theatre in London?

CP: I love the Barbican. The seats are incredibly comfortable, and they are very welcoming. It’s like being at home on your own sofa, which means you can really focus on what’s happening on stage. If it’s a Ballet Black show, then that’s a bonus!

Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black, Cristaux, choreographed by Arthur Pita, 2016. Courtesy: Ballet Black; photograph: Bill Cooper

EM: You founded Ballet Black in 2001 with the aim of giving more opportunities to dancers of Black and Asian descent. How has your mission evolved?

CP: At the beginning, the thought of getting a company of all Black and Asian dancers was such a momentous task that it was my only goal. Later, I decided to start a school with teachers of Black and Asian descent, so that the students could be taught by a more diverse group of dancers. Now, the goal is to nurture more Black and Asian choreographers, directors, producers and venue managers. The idea is that, by changing these institutional gatekeepers, everything else will shift by default.

EM: Female dancers often face different pressures to men. In Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (1875), for example, the women in the corps de ballet are expected to look like an identical, synchronized group of swans. Does this focus on conformity make it harder for women of colour to break into the industry?

CP: In ballet, there are numerous issues surrounding perceptions of men and women whatever colour you are. There’s this strong idea of uniformity that’s stuck with us for a long time. In the 1980s, the artistic director of a very prominent company said that one Black swan would distract the audience, which doesn’t give the audience much credit, does it?

EM: Chloé Lopes Gomes, a dancer with the Berlin State Ballet, was recently awarded compensation as a victim of institutional racism, including the shocking allegation that she was asked to lighten her skin for a performance of Swan Lake.

CP: We can work on our technique, make ourselves more bendy or put fake arches in our shoes, but we can’t do anything about our skin colour – nor should we ever have to.

Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black, Red Riding Hood, choreographed by Annabelle Lopez-Ochoa, 2017. Courtesy: Ballet Black; photograph: Bill Cooper

EM: Have you noticed any positive changes since you set up Ballet Black?

CP: The tragic police murder of George Floyd last year was a turning point. Before the Black Lives Matter protests, I think some people in the dance world left the problem of racism to companies like ours. Now, they’re realizing that they also have to take a stand: racism is a white person problem.

EM:  What are you proudest of achieving with the company?

CP: I’m proudest of the fact that we’re still here. At the beginning, people didn’t think we were going to be able to find dancers who were good enough, but we proved them wrong. Developing brown pointe shoes with Freed of London in 2018 was another, more tangible, accomplishment. Parents send us photographs of their daughters wearing them all the time.

Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black, Then or Now, choreographed by Will Tuckett and Mthuthuzeli November, 2020. Courtesy: Ballet Black; photograph: Bill Cooper

EM: What do you have planned for your 20th anniversary?

CP: We want to do something that’s joyous and celebrates us as artists with no other label: not Black dancers, just dancers.

EM: What can you tell me about your autumn tour, which kicks off in October?

CP: The first piece, Then or Now (2020), is by William Tuckett, who was interested in questions of belonging in a post-Brexit world. The work also considers the Windrush scandal, which saw people who were born in the UK as children of Caribbean citizens being deported to countries they had never even visited. The second piece, The Waiting Game (2020) by Mthuthuzeli November, is about someone stuck inside their own head. It’s an oddly fitting combination.

Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black, The Waiting Game, choreographed by Mthuthuzeli November, 2020. Courtesy: Ballet Black; photograph: Bill Cooper

EM: November, who began dancing with Ballet Black in 2015, won a 2020 Olivier Award for Ignoma (2019) and is now being commissioned by other established companies.

CP: We really support people when they step away from the company to do independent projects, because that’s exactly the kind of effective change that inspired me to start Ballet Black.

EM: Live performance has undeniably suffered due to COVID-19 restrictions. How do you think dance companies and theatres are coping in London?

CP: We’re cautiously optimistic. I’m really hoping that we get our tour done, but I’m also not afraid to consider an all-digital programme if we need to. We’re very resilient at Ballet Black. We’ve learned to be prepared for whatever is thrown at us.

Ballet Black’s new double bill, ‘The Waiting Game / Then or Now’, will run at the Royal Opera House, London, from 3–7 November.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, October 2021 under the headline ‘The Fact that We’re Still Here’.

Main image: Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black, WASHA, choreographed by Mthuthuzeli November, 2019. Courtesy: Ballet Black; photograph: Bill Cooper

Emily May is a writer and editor specializing in dance and performance. She lives in Berlin, Germany. 

Cassa Pancho is the Founder & Artistic Director of Ballet Black based in London, UK. Since 2001, she has commissioned more than 50 productions for Ballet Black from over 30 choreographers and runs the BB Junior School in London, UK. She was awarded an MBE for services to classical ballet in 2013.