The world of ballet is a pale one. Like other high art forms, ballet is often seen as an interest reserved for upper-class white people. The stark lack of diversity in this field of dance means that white performers are simply the norm.
A quick visit to the Royal Ballet Company’s website pleasantly surprises me. I browse the ‘What’s On’ page, hover my mouse over a thumbnail, and a brown face stares back at me. A handsome brown face. It belongs to Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. The principal casting for current performances of the Nutcracker shows a good number of ethnic minority faces.
Diversity in ballet should be discussed more. Recently, renowned ballet dancer Misty Copeland has opened the conversation. She is the first African-American woman to be appointed Female Principal Dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. In April 2015, Time listed her as one of the their most influential people in the world. Copeland, who is mixed race, has spoken openly about ballet’s race problem and the discrimination she’s experienced due to the colour of her skin.
Here in Britain, there’s a company that’s working hard to change the overwhelmingly white and monocultural landscape of classical ballet. Cassa Pancho founded Ballet Black in 2001 to provide opportunities for black and Asian classical dancers. In 14 years of running the company, she feels “there has been change for the better across the board” when it comes to diversity in ballet. Audiences are open to seeing more non-white dancers on stage, including in leading roles.
Trinidadian-British Cassa founded Ballet Black soon after graduating from the Royal Academy of Dance where she studied classical ballet. Shockingly, she couldn’t find a single black woman working in ballet to interview for her dissertation. This led to the formation of her company. Although Ballet Black has received much praise from the industry and gone from strength to strength over the years, there have been challenges too. The main ones, she tells me, have been funding and institutionalised racism.
For Cassa, her three proudest achievements for Ballet Black were performing at the Hackney Empire in 2009; Senior Artist Cira Robinson being nominated for Outstanding Female Performance (Classical) at the Critics Circle National Dance Award in 2013 and appearing on the cover of Dancing Times, Britain’s leading dance magazine, in February 2015.
— Ballet Black (@BalletBlack) December 9, 2015
Can more be done to increase diversity in ballet? Well, Ballet Black is putting in the work to make sure that happens. “Role models are the key for increasing diversity further and this is being done by Ballet Black, as well as other excellent professional dancers of black and Asian descent in the other major UK ballet companies.” Cassa believes that more visible black and ethnic minority dancers will encourage aspiring dancers to pursue ballet. The company also incorporates a ballet school that teaches pupils from as young as three years old.
The company have a full schedule ahead and some big plans for next year, including a premier of a new triple bill at London’s Barbican Theatre in March 2016.
So what can we expect when the performers of Ballet Black return to the stage? Cassa doesn’t give much away. She tells me they are reviving an audience favourite, Storyville, created by Christopher Hampson in 2012. She adds, “We’re also excited to present new works from Christopher Marney and Arthur Pita and hope that we can develop a new and even more diverse audience through our partnership with the Barbican.”
In the next five years, Cassa wants the company to grow in visibility across the UK. In an ideal world, ethnic minority classical ballet dancers would have adequate representation on stage and access the same opportunities as their white counterparts. Ballet has a very long way to go before a company like Ballet Black has no good reason to exist.
Ballet Black will perform Triple Bill at the Barbican Theatre in London on 18th – 19th March 2016. You can buy tickets for the show on the Barbican’s website.
*Originally published on The Voice of London