Ballet is a beautiful and expressive art form, but one that all too often doesn’t attract the diverse audiences it deserves. Enter Ballet Black, an eight-person company that offers an alternative to the elite stages of the Royal Opera House and English National Ballet. With a company made up entirely of dancers of black and Asian descent, Ballet Black is on a mission to reach more culturally diverse audiences. Currently, the company is touring the UK with a Triple Bill of works, including two newly-devised pieces. Ahead of the company’s performances at Theatre Royal Stratford East this week, Artistic Director Cassa Pancho spoke more with us about Ballet Black’s mission, how to increase diversity in ballet, and what to expect from their current programme of works.
What should audiences expect from the three pieces in this programme? How would you describe the works, and what do you hope to communicate to audiences through this triple bill?
We’re presenting three new ballets at Theatre Royal Stratford East. The show is split into two halves: the first half features Cristaux by award-winning choreographer Arthur Pita, a stunning and physically challenging pas de deux which features an amazing tutu covered in Swarovski crystals (which weighs a ton!), and To Begin, Begin, an incredibly beautiful ballet for six dancers created by Christopher Marney with music by Dustin O’Halloran. The ballet looks at all the different stages in one couple’s relationship, and the ultimate joys of falling in love.
After the interval, we perform Storyville, choreographed by Christopher Hampson. It tells the story of Nola, a young girl from New Orleans who goes to the big city to realise her dreams, but when she meets brothel owner Lulu White (based on a real woman in the 1920s), her life takes a dramatic turn. Storyville is full of romance, drama, comedy and tragedy. We hope to communicate great stories, fabulous dancing, and that ballet is an art form that can be enjoyed by everyone.
Can you elaborate more on your mission to bring ballet to more mixed audiences? How do you help to ensure that Ballet Black’s work reaches these audiences?
There are five major ballet companies in the UK – they all have 30 or more dancers, and while they are each brilliant in their own unique ways, the scale of these companies makes it difficult for them to travel all over the country and perform in smaller theatres. The beauty of Ballet Black having only eight dancers means that we can take our varied repertoire to theatres of all sizes, often with lower ticket prices, allowing us to reach people all over the country.
Beyond the company’s more social mission, how would you describe its choreographic vision? Your work spans a spectrum of styles, from classical to contemporary – is there anything stylistically that you would say defines a ‘Ballet Black piece’?
That’s a very hard question, given that we have ballets from over 40 choreographers, ranging from classical ballet to African to contemporary to hip hop. I would say that what defines each ballet is the dancers’ commitment to creating new work – they invest a great deal of their own artistry and passion in each piece of our repertoire, which gives us a real sense of ownership of every ballet.
Ballet Black is made up of dancers of Black and Asian descent, who are sadly largely underrepresented overall in classical ballet. What do you think are the barriers preventing this diversity in ballet, and how can other companies adapt to better embrace diversity – both in their company and the audiences they attract?
There are dancers of black and Asian descent in the major UK ballet companies, so that under-representation has definitely changed over the past five years.
Making it as a professional dancer is an incredibly tough career path. Of the hundreds of children auditioning for vocational ballet schools, only a small number will meet the criteria to cope with the rigorous physical and mental demands (much like elite level athletes). If you get through the three or more years of professional training, you are then in the position of auditioning for a job in a professional company, and will be in competition with graduates from excellent schools that come from all over the world – and often, you are competing for one of a handful of contracts. If only two of those hundreds of kids auditioning for a place in a vocational school are black, the odds of them making it and getting through to the final stage (the job!) are considerably lower.
If we can increase the number of black children in ballet at amateur level, I think we can increase the number of diverse children being of the correct standard to go to vocational school. If those numbers are higher, then there will be more diverse dancers auditioning, and being hired for, professional ballet companies, and then those dancers might just go on to be future teachers, choreographers and directors – to name just a few other career paths in dance – thus making a more diverse ballet world.
What Ballet Black does is have an entire stage full of excellent dancers who are role models to black children and their families – people need to see someone who is reflective of them in the field they are passionate about. As for diversity in the audience, I believe it is fairly straightforward: what is on stage will be reflected in your audience. More diversity in ballet will make for more diversity in the audience.
What effect do you hope Ballet Black’s work has on the ballet world?
I hope that we have shown lots of people, young and old, that ballet is something that is open to everyone, whatever their cultural background, whether they want to pursue it as a career, as a hobby or as an audience member. I also hope that we’ve helped new choreographers develop their careers as dance makers.
After this current tour, what’s next for Ballet Black? What are your future goals for the company?
Between touring dates we are busy working on our new triple bill, which will feature a brand new story ballet by another award-winning choreographer, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and will open in 2017. In the meantime, we will continue to teach at our busy school in Shepherd’s Bush and tour our excellent work all over the UK!