Cassa Pancho had a shock when she set out to write a thesis on why there were so few black ballerinas in this country.
She discovered there weren’t any at all – the stepping stone to her award-winning dance company, Ballet Black, which presents a triple bill of bold and inventive choreography at Worthing’s Connaught Theatre on May 19.
“My father is from Trinidad in the Caribbean, so I am from a mixed family, and when I was at after-school ballet in the church hall, everyone around me was very mixed, people from lots of different cultures. But when I went to professional school, there were no black dancers and no black teachers. That got me wondering. For my final-year I decided to write a thesis on the lack of black ballerinas in the UK. I was hoping to interview four or five and ask them why there were so few. I actually discovered there weren’t any, and there had only ever been one black ballerina, in the 80s or 90s.
“I suppose the lack of black ballerinas around should have tipped me off, but it did shock me. This was 1999. I was wanting to write about their perspectives, but there weren’t any, so I researched instead the training and opportunities for black ballerinas. The loudest thing that came through was that there was no representation of black people, particularly women, across the board in the ballet schools.”
And potential black ballerinas simply weren’t pursuing their interest beyond their teenage years: “They assumed that ballet was not for them because there was nobody looking like them on the professional stages. The directors were not saying that they didn’t want black ballerinas. They just weren’t seeing any black ballerinas.
“I think the first issue was that people didn’t like to go to ballet classes and be the only black face, so I started classes taught by a black teacher. That grew into us putting on a performance about six months later, and things just grew from there.”
The company is made up of eight international dancers of black and Asian descent. The entirely-original repertoire covers a broad spectrum of ballet, from classical work to highly-contemporary pieces. Since 2001, they have built a varied repertoire from the best emerging and established choreographers, including Liam Scarlett, Shobana Jeyasingh, Martin Lawrance, Richard Alston, Christopher Hampson, Christopher Marney and Javier De Frutos.
For Worthing, they are offering The Triple Bill, bringing three dance pieces together in one show, including a new ballet by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa (co-commissioned by the Barbican), who turns a popular fairy tale on its head as she gives Red Riding Hood a surprising twist.
Celebrated British choreographer Michael Corder, whose versions of Cinderella and The Snow Queen have been seen across Europe, creates an abstract piece, House of Dreams: a sparkling new quartet exploring themes of love and loss set to the delicate music of Claude Debussy with costume designs from Ballet Black’s long-term collaborator, Yukiko Tsukamoto.
A four-hander characterised by intricate detail and propulsive energy, Captured ebbs and flows to the fiery emotion of Martin Lawrance’s edgy choreography, set to a Shostakovich string quartet.
Cassa, founder and artistic director, said: “We are excited to be once again showcasing some of the world’s best choreographic talent.”
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