Monday, 4 April 2022

20 years of Ballet Black - double bill at the Barbican and currently on tour

(Photo Credit: Choreographed by Cassa Pancho and The Ballet Black Company Artists. (L-R) Ebony Thomas, Isabela Coracy, Cira Robinson and Alexander Fadayrio photographed by Bill Cooper. Lighting design by David Plater. Costume design by Jessica Cabassa)

This year is the 20th anniversary of Ballet Black – the ballet company which celebrates dancers of Black and Asian descent. While diversity in dance has improved massively over the past two decades, Ballet Black is still unique in respect of its dancers and repertoire. Ballet Black dancers are genuinely different, and they add new (well, not so new anymore!) creativity and a special energy to ballet performance. I watched the performance at the Barbican and their pre-show class, which shone an interesting light on their work. 


I have never been a professional dancer, but I go to general/intermediate ballet classes most weeks, and two of my teachers, Raymond Chai and Adam Pudney, have taught Ballet Black company classes. The class had all the familiar elements of a classical ballet class, and it showcased the dancers’ solid training and great technique. 


Ballet Black dancers do not have traditional ballet physiques; they are visibly strong, and finely muscled. Cira Robinson’s slender, elongated frame and long limbs give her a sculptural quality, even when she is working on not particularly challenging barre exercises. The male dancers leaping beautifully across the stage, and landing silently, practising for a performance to loud and vibrant music, demonstrated an innate energy – a kind of powerful bounce that was just about in control. Watching the warm-up, we caught their excitement for the show ahead.


The dancers’ energy and enthusiasm give Ballet Black their special quality which is always enhanced by the choreography the company chooses to perform. I have seen them before and I recall a brilliant and witty interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood a couple of years ago. But this year, its 20thanniversary, Ballet Black has found its voice in a double bill of specially commissioned work.


The first half of the show Say It Loud, is a choreographic history of Ballet Black itself, created by founder and artistic director Cassa Pancho. It is structured in seven chapters, with the classical combinations previewed in the warm-up class set to a varied soundtrack of music of Black origin put together by Michael ‘Mikey’ J’ Asante, including African rhythm, calypso, grime, and classic soul, interspersed with a voiceover compiled from social media, audience feedback and comments from company artists between 2001 and 2021 – “the background noise to everything we do,” wrote Pancho in the programme. Some of this was encouraging, “I love Ballet Black,” but it also highlighted the prejudices and preconceptions about Black music and dance that have challenged the company and its dancers over the years, “Why don’t you do ballets about slavery?”


All the pieces were a pleasure to watch and there were pieces designed for each dancer. I especially liked Mthuthuzeli November’s edgy solo to Flowdan’s Welcome to London, “Cold when it′s critical. Cool but cynical. Maxed out never minimal. That's how we function,” and the lyrical interpretations of jazz standards: Isabela Coracy leading a trio to What a Wonderful World, and José Alves and Cira Robinson’s pas de deux to Etta James’ beautiful rendition of At Last.

(Photo Credit: Choreographed by Cassa Pancho and The Ballet Black Company Artists. José Alves and Cira Robinson photographed by Bill Cooper. Lighting design by David Plater. Costume design by Jessica Cabassa)


The second half of the show was Gregory Maqoma’s Black Sun, a long-ish contemporary piece which “draws energy from the sun and the moon, giving rise to descendants of ancestors,” as Maquoma writes in the programme. Basically, the theme is ritual as a preparation for afterlife, blending nature and supernatural, and great use is made of lighting, costume, and sound. The choreography mixes classical and contemporary technique with African tribal rhythms.  There was a nice contrast between the pointe work in Robinson's solo and the beautiful lift in her pas de deux with November, and the tribal section where all the dancers play the drums. 


(Photo credit: Choreographed by Gregory Maqoma. (L-R) Rosanna Lindsey, Isabela Coracy, Ebony Thomas, Sayaka Ichikawa, Alexander Fadayiro and José Alves photographed by Bill Cooper. Lighting design by David Plater. Costume design by Natalie Pryce)

Black Sun builds up into a celebratory crescendo and pulled the audience in to the extent that by the end, everyone was on their feet. But I have to admit that if I hadn’t read the programme, I would not have been able to follow the narrative just from watching the performance. The costumes, by Jessica Cabassa for Say It Loud and Natalie Pryce for Black Sun deserve a mention. David Plater’s lighting is an important element of both pieces. 

Ballet Black has an energy and exuberance that spills out into the audience. Just eight dancers – Alexander Fadayiro, Cira Robinson, José Alves, Isabela Coracy, Rosanna Lindsey, Mthuthuzeli November, Sayaka Ichikawa, and Ebony Thomas – create the feeling of a big show and there was a fantastic atmosphere in the Barbican Theatre. 


And Ballet Black brings real variety to dance. In 20 years, you could say it has added a new dimension to ballet, a lot more than the brown ballet shoes mentioned in the initial voiceover, bringing genuinely different and exciting works to the stage every year – Ballet Black now has a repertoire of over 50 ballets created by 37 choreographers. Importantly, Ballet Black provides opportunity and inspiration for young dancers of colour, many of whom were in the audience. The company– is on tour until 22nd June  Catch them if you can! 


Joanna Goodman, 2022

Sunday, 3 April 2022

Ballet Futures: The Pipeline Project


I am very grateful to Sarah Kundi for bringing the Pipeline Project to my attention.  This is an initiative of English National Ballet to encourage and incentivize more dancers from African, Caribbean, South Asian or South-East Asian communities to participate in professional ballet training as soon as possible. 

Applicants must be aged 8 or over and attend an audition. Those who are successful will receive the following benefits:
  • free weekly training at their local dance school
  • support towards shoes and school uniform
  • the chance to work with English National Ballet dancers, artists and teachers throughout the year
  • backstage access to English National Ballet’s home in London, the Mulryan Centre for Dance, with additional support for travel to and from East London.
Representatives of the English National Ballet will also visit participating schools at least once a year to answer students' questions and address their concerns.

The project started at Dupont Dance Stage School in Leicester and West London School of January and has recently been extended to Nina Monteiro Ballet School in east London and Spotlight Stage School in Birmingham.

Sarah Kundi says on the project's website:
“It is imperative that we enable and support the underrepresented youth of today by providing training and opportunities, combined with being holistically nurtured, enabling them to flourish and fly”

This is a project that is dear to my heart for all sorts of reasons. I will follow it closely and support it in any way I can. Anyone requiring further information should contact the programme lead.Kerry Nicholls, on