Sunday, 9 March 2014

David Lister's Post on Ballet Black

I had intended to leave ballet alone this week. After all I have seen quite a lot of it lately - Ballet West's Swan Lake on 1 March, Matthew Bourne's on the 4th and Northern Ballet's Cleopatra on the 6th - and I have also written about Peter Darrell today. But I really must respond to David Lister's article "Ballet Black is a wonderful company. But it's a shame on the arts that it still exists"  7 March 2014 Independent Voices.

In that article Mr Lister wrote:
"Ballet Black has been delighting crowds and critics at the Royal Opera House this week. The company, founded in 2001 to create opportunities for dancers of black and Asian descent, has, according to our critic’s review, “never looked better”. They are good, so good that I want to pay them the ultimate and richly deserved accolade – they should be abolished."
He continued that Ballet Black's website states 
“Our ultimate goal is to see a fundamental change in the number of black and Asian dancers in mainstream ballet companies, making Ballet Black wonderfully unnecessary.”
And concluded
"Well, I’d say that after the reviews that this week’s performances achieved, it already is wonderfully unnecessary. If there is evidence that the big companies really are not recruiting talented black and Asian dancers, then it is imperative that we are given the evidence, and that the heads of these mainstream, and indeed national, companies are forced to explain themselves in public. The danger is that Ballet Black, understandably delighted with public and critical reaction, will strive less to make themselves unnecessary."
It is clear that Mr Lister abhors racism like all right thinking people. His article is no doubt written with the best of intentions but he is wrong. Ballet Black has never been more necessary than now. Not because black or South Asian dancers cannot get into other ballet companies as, clearly, they can and do. But because Ballet Black is claiming an art form that began in the courts of renaissance Italy and developed in imperial Russia for all cultures including (but by no means exclusively) kids from Bradford, Brixton and Moss Side.

The company is doing that in two ways. First, by bringing new audiences to the ballet.  I have seen Ballet Black three times at the Linbury, Leeds and Tottenham.  At the Linbury and Leeds there were perhaps a few more folk of African or South Asian heritage in the audience than one might see for a performance by the Royal Ballet or Northern Ballet but it was very much the same ballet going crowd. At the Bernie Grant Arts Centre there were very many more folk of African and South Asian heritage and from some of the conversations that I overheard in the queue for the loo and in the Blooming Scent Café it seems that it was for many their first experience of ballet. I might add that Ballet Black brings ballet not just to districts like Tottenham where there are many people of African and South Asian heritage but to places like Exeter, Southport and Guildford where there and relatively few.

The second way in which Ballet Black is claiming ballet for all cultures is through its school. That school like every other good ballet school in the UK is open to kids of all races, cultures and nationalities but it is clear from the photo on the website that a high proportion of its children are of African and Afro-Caribbean heritage. Why do such kids not audition for White Lodge, Elmhurst, the Northern Ballet Academy or some of the other fine schools of the country? Well some of them do but without dancers like Cira Robinson and Isabela Coracy to show those children and their parents that it is possible for folk who look like them to achieve excellence in ballet not to mention the inspiration of the wonderful Cassa Pancho they would do so in far fewer numbers.

I can testify from my own experience how important that is. Although I am white I was married to a Sierra Leonean for 28 years. During the vicious civil war we looked after a young Sierra Leonean girl who was fortunate enough to be born in London and could therefore take refuge in this country. That young girl is the nearest I have to a daughter and her 3 year old child is the nearest I have to a grandson. I love both of them to bits. The boy has a beautifully expressive face and in his play he has shown signs that suggest that he may have a talent for ballet. I suggested to his mum that we ought to take him to a ballet teacher. She replied by asking me whether ballet was really for Africans. I might add that she had already seen quite a lot of ballet by companies like the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet and loves the art. I answered her by taking her to the performance of Ballet Black that I reviewed on the 26 Feb. Having seen Ballet Black she has agreed to let me take the little boy to the Peacock on 13 April to see My First Ballet: Coppélia. If he likes the show she will let me take her boy to a mini-mover or baby ballet class and we shall see how he gets on from there.

For most of this article I have justified Ballet Black for their role in generating new audiences and education but there is an artistic reason why the company will never be wonderfully unnecessary. There are some ballets that people of African heritage can do particularly well either because the are based on African or Afro-Caribbean music or legend or simply because of features of their physique or countenance. That is why companies like Alvin Ailey and the Dance Theatre of Harlem continue to thrive in the USA. That is why there will always be a need for a company like Ballet Black in this country.

Related Articles

6 Oct 2013  "Ballet Black: 'we don't talk about stuff, we just do it.'"
12 Mar 2013  "Ballet Black's Appeal"

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