Guest author Matthew Paluch sees Cassa Pancho's Ballet Black in ‘Say it Loud' and ‘Black Sun'.
|Say it Loud and Black Sun
|Linbury Theatre, London
|19 October 2022
Reaching 20 years for most things is cause for celebration, but for a ballet company to reach this anniversary is an extraordinary feat. So uber nod to Cassa Pancho – Ballet Black's founder and artistic director. BB is far more than just your average ballet company. Pancho finding the company out of necessity – which is often a strong start for anything.
I came across Pancho's initial reasoning when researching the recent (July 2022) ballet-based debacle at Northern School of Contemporary Dance. Here's a quick reminder:
Francesca McCarthy, head of undergraduate studies, decided to remove ballet from all future auditions for NSCD (confirmed in an interview in The Times) as she sees it as a barrier – in relation to inclusion. Three-fold: Whiteness, Elitism and Gender. Cut to much heated online dialogue which ended with NSCD releasing a press statement 48 hours later confirming, “Whilst ballet will not form part of our undergraduate auditions, our students will be expected to learn ballet during their studies at the school. Ballet is an integral part of our curriculum and training, as we recognise how much ballet can contribute to our students' physical, creative and technical development.”
This is a massive topic. But in short McCarthy is right in rhetoric, but perhaps questionable in action. When highlighting lack of inclusion is cancelling the desirable route? Surely dialogue, development, and adaptability are preferable. But subjects discussing identity and related rights bring out something in people: “what a pile of PC crap”, “bloody ridiculous”, “what is the role of ballet teaching ever, amid a contemporary dance degree course?” are just some of the comments I came across during the (heated) moment.
Back to Pancho, who started Ballet Black in 2002 after attending the Royal Academy of Dance in London. Quoted in the New York Times she was “shocked at the lack of people of colour around me, and that in the eyes of this school, I was considered to be a person of colour. It just made me think about the Black women in British ballet, their experiences, and what challenges they come up against.”
And here we are, 20 years later, acknowledging what Pancho and Ballet Black, have done and mean in the ballet world. Brava.
The company brought a double bill to the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House to celebrate their milestone.
Say It Loud, choreographed and directed by Pancho and the Ballet Black Company artists is “an autobiographical work that charts the story of the pioneering company and its journey to becoming one of the British ballet industry's best-known names”.
As the company are involved with the creation, the choreographic credits are extensive: José Alves, Charlotte Broom, Isabela Coracy, Alexander Fadayiro, Sayaka Ichikawa, Rosanna Lindsey, Marie-Astrid Mence, Mthuthuzeli November, Cassa Pancho, Cira Robinson and Ebony Thomas. As is the eclectic music selection: Michael ‘Mikey J' Asante, Jon Batiste, Flowdan, Etta James, Lord Kitchener, Steve Reich and Soweto Gospel Choir.
This is a work of celebration so I've no interest in over analysing the piece itself, but I'm very happy to muse over the ethos and values that it discusses.
The work embodies what Ballet Black stands for: representation. And representation specifically within the ballet world.
Ballet as an art form is about conforming – sadly – and as much as we discuss the need for evolution, ballet's originating underpinning is still evident and difficult to shake. Aesthetics, the values attached, the fundamental narratives etc. Most do conform to a certain level, individuals, and institutions, even if they talk very loudly about resisting the existing frameworks.
Ballet Black has asked, and continues to ask, the questions that need to be posed within, and about the sector. And what they present on stage is evidence that they've broken the mould.
We see individuals not conforming but rather finding ways that ballet works for them. It's so refreshing to watch. Life-affirming even. And if that's how it makes me feel, I can't even imagine how it feels for the company dancers.
Say It Loud says many things – and none apologetically.
The work begins with the narration of comments Ballet Black has fielded over the years, from blatant racism to being the representation of ballet that some people thought they'd never see. The piece is divided into seven chapters which take us on different journeys that enable the dancers to convey the Ballet Black story to date, as well as their individual presences.
We see November portray the reality of living in London, and the sense of fitting in that it offers. This is done through an inner city feel highlighting the range of movement style within Ballet Black.
Robinson and Alves execute a typical classical pas de deux – the kind of dance that defines elements of Ballet Black's existence.
One of the final chapters is a solo performed by Coracy to the Odetta song ‘This Little Light of Mine'. The simple but powerful lyrics resonate more in this situation because we actually see the light of individuals shining: “This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine.” They've been given the space to represent, and they do. Themselves. Even when using ballet as their mode of communication.
The choreography throughout is neoclassical in style, well-rehearsed and beautifully executed.
The general approach to the dancing feels more American than anything else. Easy, open, natural, and generous. Robinson, being American, is of course a brilliant communicator of this style. She also has the kind of preparation technique I like: quick, invisible preparations that allow the step or movement to do the talking. Very watchable.
By the end the dancers have almost forgotten about the audience and are dancing together for each other, including modern, pedestrian style movements which are fun to see somewhat evolved to include the pointe shoe!
Another striking aspect of Ballet Black's in-house style is that the dancers do the balletic choreography how it should feel rather than how it should look and this genuine approach results in better looking dancing anyway. A total win win.
The second work post-interval is Black Sun by South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma (of Vuyani Dance Theatre) set to an original score by Michael ‘Mikey J' Asanté.
This is a work that needs to be seen. And seen by this company performing it. The narrative isn't my story – it's one I can't even comprehend as a white man – but it's a serious responsibility to watch the work and try to contemplate what it addresses.
In short, the piece is about trauma and release. The trauma of ancestors and descendants and how generations can find some kind of release without negating what came before, and how it continues to shape the fallout.
In the programme notes, Maqoma was clear that the creative process was difficult and spiritual, and that's abundantly clear.
The performances by the dancers are extraordinary. They're dealing with extremely heavy, personal subject matter in very genuine, heartfelt, traumatising performances.
The movement language has so many different influences: from folk/native style movement to percussive dance and music created by the dancers; use of voice, song; North African, African and South African movement traits; and use of breath.
The narrative aspects are just as plentiful, with the dancers showing many different sides. The warrior, victim, possessed, traumatised, empowered, and all realised individually, and with raw emotion.
Robinson shares a career-defining performance that feels very connected to trauma but it's a journey that sees both the embodiment of pain, and the desire to release and soar.
November takes us to so many different places. His movement has a sense of weight that could be felt across an entire continent, and the authenticity in his voice could see him fill stadiums. Coracy shows us both ends of the broadest of spectrums: trauma resulting in weeping, to levels of defiance that could lead an army.
It was a truly extraordinary performance to witness – and couldn't be a more befitting work for Ballet Black to acknowledge their achievements and continued necessity.
Watching this performance inside the Royal Opera House made me contemplate the concepts of representation and recognition. Ballet Black are in the building for all the right reasons, but they're in the Linbury with nine dancers and the Royal Ballet are in the Royal Opera House with approximately 100 dancers. Side by side is an important proximity to acknowledge but the messages conveyed are still poles apart at times. Discussions need to continue – especially about recognition and the true reality of conforming – even if people or places think they aren't. And I'm sure Ballet Black are going to continue to be some, if not the most important people involved in these ongoing dialogues.