Ballet Black is Back

Our editor Donald Hutera delves into the workings of Ballet Black, returning to Winchester for the second year in a row

A Dream Within a Midsummer Night's Dream" by Arthur Pita Photography: Bill Cooper
A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Arthur Pita
Photography: Bill Cooper

Ask Cassa Pancho, the artistic director of Ballet Black, what her dreams and plans for the company are and she answers, ‘To keep going.’ It might sound simple, maybe even glib, but behind the succinct reply is a vast amount of sheer hard graft.

Pancho, who is of Trinidadian and British parentage, studied classical ballet at the Royal Academy. Upon graduating, and having noted a dearth of people of colour either studying or working professionally in the ballet sphere, she decided to address this alarming omission by starting a company of her own. The result was Ballet Black, founded in 2001 with a mission to ‘provide dancers and students of black and Asian descent with inspiring opportunities in classical ballet.’

Since then the company has gradually attained a high-profile, earning acclaim, awards (including gongs from the dance section of Critics’ Circle for its outstanding repertory and as best independent company) and an avid fan-base. Among the chief reasons for its ascent is the calibre of dancing coupled with Pancho’s astute and truly impressive choice of choreographic commissions. The latter roster includes Irek Mukhamedov, Richard Alston, Shobana Jeyasingh, Liam Scarlett, Bawren Tavaziva, Henri Oguike, Christopher Hampson, Will Tuckett, Antonia Franceschi, Javier De Frutos, Mark Bruce and Jonathan Goddard. ‘When I began the company I was always the one inviting people to make ballets,’ Pancho explains, ‘but now we get a lot more asking us if they can create something.’

Here at The Winchester Guide we’re partial to Ballet Black, having worked with the company in the summer of 2009 on the production POP8 at the Giant Olive Theatre. It seems that audiences in Winchester may be likewise favourably inclined, given that the company’s upcoming performances at the Theatre Royal Nov 28 (triple bill, 7.30pm) and 29 (family show Dogs Don’t Do Ballet, 2pm and 4.30pm) constitutes its second visit to the venue. With any luck, this might well develop into an annual occurrence.

Pancho, not unnaturally, enjoys sharing information what the work the company is doing. As do the choreographers she invites to create on her dancers. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call it a mutual admiration society.

Consider Martin Lawrance, a long-time associate (as both dancer and dance-maker) of Richard Alston’s company. The curtain-raising Limbo is the third time that he’s made work for Ballet Black, following the 2009 duet Pendulum and the quartet Captured three years later. Pancho deems his new work, a trio about being caught between life and death, ‘fiendishly difficult and exhausting to dance – but worth it!’

Lawrance, for his part, has a high regard for Ballet Black’s dancers. ‘They can do everything,’ he enthuses. ‘How can I get them to do things better, by which I mean push them in a different way?’ The result, set to Hindemeth’s fastidiously dramatic Viola Sonata, is a dark, dynamic piece that fulfils Lawrance’s creative brief to mine human feeling out of motion. ‘You make movement,’ he says, explaining his approach to choreography. ‘I don’t go into the studio with a dramatic idea. I just see where the phrases lead, but as it turns out that can be done poetically.’

Sharing the first half of Friday’s evening bill with Lawrance’s Limbo is Two of a Kind by dancer (including with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures) turned chorographer Christopher Marney. Pancho describes it as ‘a beautiful quartet set to Ravel and Tchaikovsky, exploring the theme of one woman’s internal journey through the course of a changing relationship.’ This work has been expanded from its original state as an eight-minute pas de deux fashioned for a Ballet Black fundraiser in 2009.

Dogs Don't Do Ballet
Dogs Don’t Do Ballet

Two of a Kind is the second dance Marney’s made for the company, after having scored a hit with War Letters last year. But it doesn’t stop there. Marney is also responsible for Dogs Don’t Do Ballet, based on Anna Kemp’s best-selling children’s book about, in Pancho’s words, ‘a little dog who thinks he’s a ballerina and doesn’t want to do anything but dance. The company really enjoys working with Chris as his choreography is incredibly inventive, funny and touching – all the things that make the book so special.’ Pancho is pleased because, as she says, ‘I’ve always wanted to have a ballet for families to enjoy together.’

Another important aspect of Dogs Don’t Do Ballet, she adds, is that it marks the first time Ballet Black is using a set. Is it any wonder that Marney’s scheduled to make another work for the company in 2016?

A Dream Within a Midsummer Night's Dream" by Arthur Pita Photography: Bill Cooper
A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Arthur Pita
Photography: Bill Cooper

That only leaves Arthur Pita’s Olivier and Critics’ Circle-nominated ensemble piece A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be discussed. ‘I’d wanted to work with Arthur for a while,’ Pancho confesses, ‘and when he suggested  a Midsummer Night’s Dream that’s turned on its head I jumped at the chance. We have an incredible catalogue of ballets, but for our fourth narrative work I wanted to try something less traditional and really give the dancers a challenge. Arthur’s created a pure gem of a ballet for us, traditional in one sense – it’s our first time with tutus! – but just as you think you’re going to see something very classical he pulls the rug out from under you. The music includes Eartha Kitt, Handel, Jeff Buckley, Yma Sumac and Barbara Streisand, to name a few. Arthur has a true gift for weaving these things together to make one of my all-time favourite BB ballets. It feels like a real piece of theatre. We’ve toured it around the UK and Italy, and audiences are loving it.’

You could hardly ask for a more heart-felt and articulate endorsement than that. Still, it’s worth finding out what it meant to Pita himself to create the piece. For starters, he really appreciates that with this 25-minute work for eight dancers he was able to take a risk. ‘The first section of the piece is a ballet with tutus, tights, pointe shoes and the works – something I’d never done. I’m totally fascinated by the laws of the tutu and how they marry to a balletic vocabulary. It was wonderful collaborating with designer Jean-Marc Puissant who has such vast knowledge about tutus. I learned so much about the atheistic of ballet generally, and the dancers were so encouraging. I’d also just come out of doing a darker piece prior to working with Ballet Black, and so I felt the need to do something lighter and have some fun with the dancers.’

Pita says his goal was ‘to create a ballet in which rules can be broken and mended within the laws of classical ballet and theatre.’ But his intentions towards his source material remained honourable. ‘I’ve always loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I played the Indian boy way back in the English National Opera’s production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, and I remember thinking how well the narrative lent itself to dance and music. Shakespeare provides much mischief and glorious images to play with, yet there’s an honesty in all of the characters’ desire. It’s not faithful, but it’s certainly inspired by the world of Shakespeare’s Dream. It’s an adaptation of the idea, hence the title. The images of the narrative are there, but the journey to them is different.’

Asked to pinpoint what the pleasure of working with Ballet Black is, Pita replies, ‘It’s the passion they have for their work. They work in a tiny space in Marylebone, and I mean tiny, and only have a big studio once a week at the Royal Opera House. Somehow, with love and compassion, they manage with no complaints. There’s a joyous atmosphere in the studio. And Cassa gives herself fully. She cares so much about the company and what it stands for. She’s kept the company going with only a little support from Arts Council England, but has gone from strength to strength.’

Based at Marylebone Dance Studio in London, Ballet Black occupies a unique place on the British dance scene and Pancho is rightly proud of it. ‘We’ve achieved many things over the years. Our main goal was and is to inspire more children and dancers of black or Asian heritage to take up ballet in some form.’ To that end, she says, ‘We have a thriving school for children that’s packed with students of all colours; they come to the performances, take classes, and pass ballet exams. Another goal was going from being a part-time group to a full-time professional company over fourteen years. We’ve won two Critics’ Circle awards (plus three nominations) and have toured extensively throughout the UK, Italy and Bermuda. Our entirely original repertoire of over 30 ballets by over 25 choreographers is also quite rare.’ While Pancho admits that ‘a lack of substantial, regular money makes it challenging to plan too far ahead,’ she remains determined and optimistic about the company’s future. ‘I don’t like to think that anything can hold us back.’

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