Like other high art forms, ballet is often seen as an interest reserved for upper-class white people, but is this changing fast enough?
The world of ballet can be a rather pale one. The stark lack of diversity in this field of dance means that white performers are simply the norm, but a quick visit to the Royal Ballet Company’s website surprises me. I’m browsing the ‘What’s On’ page and as my mouse hovers near a thumbnail, I see a brown face staring back at me. A handsome brown face. It belongs to Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. A quick glance at the principal casting for current performances of the Nutcracker shows a good number of ethnic minority faces.
Diversity in ballet is clearly an issue that should be discussed more, and it has been – partly thanks to renowned ballet dancer Misty Copeland. Earlier this year, she made headlines, and history, by becoming the first African-American woman to be appointed Female Principal Dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. In April, she was featured on the cover of Time and listed as one of the magazine’s most influential people in the world. Copeland, who is mixed race, has spoken openly about ballet’s race problem and the challenges and discrimination she’s experienced because of 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. Ballet Black was founded in 2001 by Cassa Pancho to provide opportunities for classical dancers of black and Asian descent. In the fourteen years of running the company, she feels “there has been change for the better across the board” when it comes to diversity in ballet, and that audiences are open to seeing more non-white dancers on stage, including in leading roles.
Cassa, born to Trinidadian and British parents, founded Ballet Black not too long after graduating from the Royal Academy of Dance where she studied classical ballet. When writing her dissertation, she was shocked to discover that she couldn’t find one black woman working in ballet to interview, which ultimately 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, Cassa has had her fair share of challenges too. The main ones, she tells me, have been funding and institutionalised racism, which unfortunately isn’t surprising.
For Cassa, her top three proudest achievements for Ballet Black were performing at the Hackney Empire in 2009 (the same year Ballet Black also won the Critics’ Circle Dance Award for Outstanding Company), Senior Artist Cira Robinson being nominated for Outstanding Female Performance (Classical) at the Critics Circle National Dance Award in 2013 and featuring on the cover of Britain’s leading dance magazine, Dancing Times in February 2015.
Does she think more could 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 if more black and ethnic minority dancers are visible, then younger aspiring dancers are more likely to feel encouraged to pursue ballet if they can see professional dancers who reflect them. 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 but 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 would have liked the company to increase its visibility across the country and grow to 16 dancers. However, a part of Ballet Black’s website states it hopes that a day will come when the company is not needed anymore, as classical ballet dancers from ethnic minority backgrounds will be adequately represented on stage and offered the same opportunities as their white counterparts. It looks like that will remain a hopeful wish for the foreseeable future as ballet has a long way to go before a company like Ballet Black has no good reason to exist.
Ballet Black’s Triple Bill will be performed 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