Ballet Black was founded in 2001 to tackle the under-representation of black and Asian groups in ballet.
A neon yellow spotlight exposes Isabela Coracy on the pitch black stage. She wears a bright yellow trouser suit with shoulder pads and bronze pointe shoes on her feet. Ken Beebe’s ‘Snapping Fingers’ starts to play and four more dancers emerge from the darkness, each with their own coloured spotlight and matching trouser suit. Then, the music transitions and the finger-clicking starts, plunging you into a contemporary twist on a 1970s disco.
Sophie Laplane’s CLICK! was the second show in Ballet Black’s triple bill and it brought out a whole new side to modern ballet, by fusing the socially-liberating grooves of disco with cutting-edge choreography. Two more performances completed the trio. Martin Lawrence’s Pendulum, one of the company’s staple duets, was an intensely physical performance that highlighted the sheer strength of the two bodies onstage, while Mthuthuzeli November’s Ingoma reignited an understated moment in black history. This 30-minute piece was inspired by two paintings from the 1946 miner’s strike in South Africa and was created by one of the company’s own dancers.
Ballet Black has had a reputation for boundary-pushing commissions since founder Cassa Pancho set up the company almost two decades ago. She embarked on the journey after graduating from university, where she failed to find a single black ballet dancer to interview for her dissertation. It pushed her to create a small haven in what remains to be a very traditional and predominantly white industry – she has since been awarded an MBE for her services to classical ballet. Today, her company is made up of eight dancers, all of whom are of black or Asian descent.
It’s fair to say that the world of ballet is becoming increasingly diverse, from LGBT+ themes in Matthew Bourne’s ‘Swan Lake’ to the variety of ‘unconventional’ ballet body shapes that make up Complexions Contemporary Ballet, but when it comes to the representation of black bodies especially, there’s still a way to go. This is what drove Pancho to create Ballet Black in 2001. She wanted to prove that black people are capable of performing classical ballet, even though the industry is lagging behind.
There is no clear reason for the lack of black representation in ballet. Undoubtedly, systemic racism has played its part for hundreds of years, but why has this issue continued to linger? While some believe it’s a matter of accessibility, others feel it’s down to not feeling welcome, leading to less people walking into casting sessions or even a child’s entry-level ballet class
When you take a look at ballet’s 16th-century origins, it’s clear that the industry has been built around white European bodies. Even the act of watching ballet is considered a white, upper-class pursuit, which gives it an elitist edge.
Feeling welcome is key and unfortunately, the industry has been slow in tackling this. Something seemingly as small as skin-coloured ballet shoes can be crucial. It wasn’t until 2018, when Ballet Black teamed up with Freed of London to create brown and bronze pointe shoes, that the penny dropped for a lot of people. Until then – and still now – ballet dancers with darker skin would ‘pancake’ their shoes using cheap bottles of foundation. After all, satin pink pointe shoes fail to accentuate a non-white dancer’s natural ‘line’, something which is key to the visual nature of ballet.
The problem is that ballet is a long-established art form, and with that comes outdated attitudes that are harder to shake off. Traditionally, the female needs to be strong enough to hold her form and slim enough to be lifted with ease, but how she appears in a group is just as important. The corps de ballet refers to a large group of dancers on stage at one time – Swan Lake is full of world-famous examples. It is desirable for these dancers to be visually identical, taking into account height, weight and skin tone. The principal roles meanwhile, tend to champion pale fairytale figures.
Men face the same issue, to the extent that many have reported being casted as masked roles or aggressive characters in productions. With this in mind, it’s clear that black dancers have had to endure all kinds of restrictions during their classical ballet careers, purely because of the colour of their skin. Even if you get through casting, how likely is it you’ll be promoted to a principal role? Ballet Black’s own Cira Robinson believes her skin colour played a vital role in her rejections by classical ballet companies. Unless there’s a motivation for black ballet dancers to enter the industry, the numbers will continue to dwindle.
This is Pancho’s mission – to inspire a new generation of black dancers. It takes well over a decade to train in classical ballet, so encouragement needs to start from a young age. Alongside the core company, she set up the BB Junior School in Shepherd’s Bush, as well as an associates programme where dancers can further develop their skills.
At the end of the day, if a child can look up to role models that look like them, dance without being the only black person in the room and wear shoes that match the colour of their skin, this can have a huge impact. In turn, it can encourage a more diverse audience. Unsurprisingly, Ballet Black’s triple bill had the most diverse audience I’d ever seen for a ballet show, both in race and age.
Another breakthrough moment for the company was performing for Stormzy’s Pyramid Stage debut at Glastonbury in 2019. Millions were opened up to the topic of black representation in ballet, while soaking up an all-round celebration of black culture with a medley of other acts onstage. By collaborating with a broad set of creatives, Ballet Black is able to encourage diversity across the industry. Crucially, this includes working with large classical ballet companies across the UK, who as a whole have been criticised to be lacking in black representation.
As with everything, working with people from all walks of life and with entirely different experiences can only be a positive thing, especially in a creative context. This has been evident through Ballet Black’s hybrid approach to classical ballet. New concepts are formed and ideas are reborn with a completely different narrative. Often, if you’re a minority in a large company, these flourishing ideas can become squashed under the weight of those more visible than you. As was evident in November’s ‘Ingoma’ during Ballet Black’s triple bill, dancers can help to shape the final outcome and keep the heart of the company alive with fresh and exciting ideas, while challenging the stereotype that ballet should be reserved for fair and pale swans.
To encourage more dance footwear brands to make ballet shoes for darker skin tones, you can sign this petition.
Cover image credit: Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black Photography by Holly McGlynn