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Talking to Cassa Pancho Founder Ballet Black: Catch #BBonFilm now in “Like Water”

“…...I wrote a dissertation about the lack of Black women in Britain, in classical ballet and wanted to interview four or five women just to find out what they had gone through to get to that professional place. But there weren’t any Black women working in ballet professionally”. Cassa Pancho

Born to a Trinidadian and a British parent, Cassa is the Founder of the award-winning Ballet Black Company, she  trained at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dance, gaining a degree in classical ballet from Durham University. Recent awards include the 2020 Olivier when Senior Artist at Ballet Black Mthuthuzeli November won the Award for Best New Dance Production for Ingoma. Her entry into the world of ballet was an eye opener. She recalls “My dad is from Trinidad and my mom is White Brit and I didn’t really ever think about being a mixture of two things until I got to professional ballet school, where suddenly from growing up in West London, which is very multicultural area, to going to private ballet school which became a completely Caucasian experience”.

This prompted upon graduation in 2001, her founding Ballet Black in order to provide role models to young, aspiring Black and Asian dancers. A year later, she opened the Ballet Black Junior School in Shepherd’s Bush. Cassa is also a graduate of the 2009 National Theatre cultural leadership programme, Step Change. Since starting the Company, she has commissioned work from a wide range of choreographers, including Liam Scarlett, Richard Alston, Javier de Frutos, Annabelle Lopez- Ochoa, Shobana Jeyasingh, Henri Oguike, and Will Tuckett.

Ballet Black won both the Critics’ Circle National Dance Award for Outstanding Company in 2009 and Best Independent Company in 2012. In 2013 she was awarded an #MBE for the New Year Honours List for Services to Classical Ballet and has served as a judge on the panels of both the Kenneth Macmillan Choreographic and BBC Young Dancer competitions. In 2015, Cassa was appointed a Patron of Central School of Ballet and in May 2016 became a vice president of The London Ballet Circle. In 2017, she joined the Ballet Now consortium in association with Birmingham Royal Ballet and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSAA. A much-needed collaboration with  Senior Artist Cira Robinson and  renowned British ballet shoe manufacturer, Freed of London, to create two brand new pointe shoe colours to enable dancers of black descent to buy skin-tone pointe shoes ready-made also came about in 2017. In 2018, Cassa was awarded the Freedom of the City of London. To date, she has commissioned 41 choreographers, to create over 50 new ballets for the Company. In both 2017, 2018 & 2019 Cassa was included in The Evening Standards The Progress 1000: London’s most influential people. She also teaches regularly at the BB Junior School in Shepherd’s Bush, West London. ALT caught up with Cassa just as the UK commenced into the governments  then new tier second lock down and as Ballet Black picked up an award from both the Olivier Awards and the Black British Theatre Awards. Since lock down Ballet Black is now available on film you can catch #BBonFilm Like Water here it is a 9.10 minute piece that “acknowledges the resilience of our ancestors”.

ALT: How has  lock down been for you?

I don’t know. It’s been awful. Great, terrible, wonderful, awful, confusing. I think  everything, more than the first one in a way. I think the way you put it was really accurate. We just come to terms with the first lockdown, I’ve been feeling really weird and you’ve just made something click in my brain. I feel like that makes total sense. I just came to terms with what happened and we’re back in it again in a different way  and I think for me the lockdown, obviously we follow anything the government tells us, but it doesn’t feel like it makes sense to have schools open, but not let us open. We have a ballet school for 3-to-18-year olds. Most of the kids come from the same school in the local area in Shepherd’s Bush. So, they’re all at school together. Normally they all just cross the street and come to ballet class, but we’ve had to close our ballet school again. That’s a bit devastating. I know there are bigger problems in the world than ballet and missing your ballet class but it is hard to find the logic.

ALT: Can you tell me a bit about the vision for Ballet Black?

My dad is from Trinidad and my mom is White British and I didn’t really ever think about being a mixture of two things until I got to professional ballet school, where suddenly from from growing up in West London, which is very mixed area, going to private ballet school became a completely Caucasian experience. And I just would always look around and wonder where my black classmates or mixed race or black teachers were, there were none. Because I have come out the more Caucasian end of being mixed race the people around me didn’t know what my heritage was unless I told them. For a while, I would hear things like, you know, black people don’t want to do ballet. They’re not interested in ballet. They’re not interested in classical art, but at the same time, my father had enrolled me in ballet at age two and a half, so that, you know, didn’t make sense to me.

Ballet-Black Award WINNER Ingoma- Dancers Jose-Alves and Cira-Robinson

For my final year, I wrote a dissertation about the lack of Black women in Britain, in classical ballet and wanted to interview four or five women just to find out what they had gone through to get to that professional place. But there weren’t any Black women working in ballet professionally. I had to rethink all my questions because I’d done everything based on interviewing these fictitious women. If you look at Ballet schools, how they may use Black kids on their brochures, but in the actual class and there’s no Black kids in there, it’s a funding tick box. If the class is all White and the teacher is White, why would a Black mom and dad want to send their little precious three-year-old into an environment where they feel like they’re the only one or that they stand out in some way. And how would any of these little kids aspire to be a professional ballet dancer if they didn’t see role models that look like them working at the top level of ballet. So, I knew that we are not going to turn every kid, you meet into a professional ballet dancer. But what about people that just grow up with a love of theatre and dance people that will buy a ticket to a show, people that will donate five pounds to a fundraiser, you know, just an arts audience who looked different to the ballet audience that was around 20 years ago, which was pretty Caucasian. That’s where it came from so I left school and started Ballet Black and here we are 19 years later.

ALT: Prior to that did you work as a dancer?

Well, I started training at two and a half and when I left school, I danced in Ballet Black, because I started it as soon as I left school. So I didn’t go and dance for a bit and then start the company. I did it at the same time and very quickly I realized there was way too much work to do to run the company, to also dance, like keep up the level to dance in it. So as soon as we had enough money, I stopped dancing since I could pay enough other people to do it.

ALT: What were some of the early challenges?

The only challenges were being taken seriously? One because I was a recent school graduate, I was very young. I was 21 or something like that. It was not really the done thing back then to start a Company, especially in ballet that was more something people did in contemporary dance and African dance and others genres, but ballet no. And also to say, I wanted all the dancers to be Black or Asian people. It was like where are you going to do this, who’s going to do it. Where are you going to find people to come to your shows? That was very challenging. So it was a combination. I think, of being a young female and being very patronized and spoken down to a lot of the time. And then this idea that it’s madness and to think I could even find enough black dancers who want to be in the Company who, and who would be good enough and an audience to come and see us.

ALT: How much has changed since then in terms of the opportunities for Black and Asian dancers?

When I started it, there were only a couple of black male dancers working professionally. Now there are a handful of black dancers in each of the major ballet companies, which doesn’t sound like very much, but in terms of the way the ballet world moves, that’s sort of an improvement. I don’t think you would call it an improvement in any other industry in the world, but it takes, you know, 10 to 15 years to train a ballet dancer. It’s a long-haul thing. You don’t just decide to do ballet and train for six months and do it. You get people when they’re very young to get them to the right standard. So that’s very slowly changing very slowly. Another change is now there is a small availability of brown shoes and tights, which never used to exist, which for me just sets the tone. So, if you’re going into a shop, you can see things that are in your skin colour, not just pink, which is what everything was in ballet for a really long time. It was only in 2018 that we got the shoes here. They’ve had them in America fora couple of years longer, but you know, it’s been a really long time.

ALT: Tell us a bit about your business model?

A third of our money comes from the Arts Council, which is the government’s arm for distributing money to the arts. And then the rest of it, we raise ourselves. But what the Arts Council money allows us to do is offer eight contracts to dancers for 45 weeks of the year, so that they’re guaranteed a job and pay. And that’s in terms of the dance world and freelance, smaller scale companies. That’s a really good, guaranteed amount of work because often when you dance in smaller companies, they run for a couple of months or six months, you know, they don’t run for 45 weeks of the year. So, that’s what we do with our dancers. And then the rest of the money, the other two thirds, we have to raise through touring income, which has dried up now obviously, and trusts and foundations, private donors, other funding bodies. We sell a small amount of merchandise and stuff like that. All that money goes back into the company, to the dancers, to commission new ballets, to pay our ballet teachers at our school. And basically, any activity to do with the company is paid for through that. And anything we make goes back into the company.

ALT: Is there a specific age range for dancers to join BB?

Well for the professional company you would need to have completed normally a three-year vocational course at a recognized ballet school, and you probably graduate that at age 17, 18. So we have never had a dancer younger than 16, I think and then for our school, there’s no requirements other than you want to do ballet. And we take those kids from age three and the classes go up to age 18.

ALT: How has COVID -19  affected business and what are the changes you’ve had to make?

Top right Boss Lady Cassa Pancho and posters mapping the journey of Ballet Black

I think the last time we did this interview; we were one week away from opening our new show at the Barbican. And then we would have toured that pretty consistently until December this year. So,  all of that was cancelled. At first, we thought just the Spring bit would be cancelled and we’d be back in the autumn. And then autumn started to look dodgy. And now next year looks well, it’s a big question mark. So normally we would earn money from those performances, because we can’t do that in any shape or form, especially now in the second lock down with theatres being closed, we have turned our attention to making dance films. So, we made one, we’ve got really lucky the last nice day in October, we went to Margate beach and made a film, which is going to hopefully be ready at the end of November.

The Grange_Ballet_Black WASHA IMAGE CREDIT CAMILLA GREENWELL

And we have plans to make films of Ballet’s that haven’t been seen yet. So that if we keep going in and out of lock downs, we can offer the film version to people instead, as well as the live, if we are allowed to do that.  So, that’s the plan, making a film costs like four or five times more than making a live ballet, which we just discovering now. It’s taking a lot of work to find money, to do all that and to keep our staff on as much as we can. The other thing with it is that even though theatres might reopen, they might only have 30% of the seats available, I’m not sure what the rule is now, but the last time we talked to the Barbican, instead of having over a thousand seats, they were only going to be able make 180 seats available. we’d have to go back to back, have  so many shows to try and make back what four regular nights would look like. So even when they do reopen, I don’t know how we could sustain that business model without additional financial help from the government or the public.

ALT: Can you tell us about more about the creation of dancewear for people of color how that came about?.

Freed-of-London-ballet-brown- pointe shoe

One of our dancers Cira Robinson, who’s been with us for 12 years, wears the brand Freed of London, pointe shoe brands are a bit like sportswear brands. So if you love Nike, you only want to wear Nike. And if you love Adidas etc, so this is sort of similar with them.

With pointe shoes Cira’s brand is Freed. She asked them if, because they make custom colours for her but the one colour they never did was brown. She said, how can I get a custom brown shoe? But it went on and on back and forth until we, the Company got involved and asked Freed how can we work together to make these shoes? And from there, we went through lots of different testing and stuff like that, and came up with two colours, bronze and brown, and there are matching tights to go with them. And that was launched in 2018. And it’s the first time in this country, that Brown pointe shoes have been made available to dancers.

ALT: How does it make you feel to be recognized for the hard work that you’ve put into the industry Recently winning both an Olivier Award and a Black British Theatre Award?

Well, we won both for best dance production for our ballet Ingoma the South African ballet, I think what was really special about both, first of all, I mean the Black British Theatre Award didn’t exist until a couple of years ago, so it was never something I thought we could get. And then Olivier, it just seemed way beyond any reality for our cause. You know, although we’ve done a lot of good things because it’s mine I sometimes find it hard to see what we’ve done, because I am in the middle of business. Winning an Olivier just didn’t seem like anything I would comprehend and when we were nominated, I was like, Oh, we’re never going to win that. But we did.

I think what was also really special is that the ballet we won it for is a Black historical story made by a black choreographer, using a diverse cast to tell the story. And it was on at the Royal Opera House and the Barbican, you know, all these main stages. And that is something that hasn’t been done in this country before. And so, for that to be recognized for whatever reason, the awards recognized it, I don’t know whether it was for it beindg a great piece or whether they also realized the significance. That is what is very special for me. And I think for the Company as well.

ALT: What do you think would be the lasting impact on dance as a result of the pandemic?

Well, it’s made us all get our backsides in gear for making digital work. Which I would say as an industry, we were lagging behind. We were so reliant on live performance and we’d never had any reason to consider having to do anything else because I don’t know about you. I never conceived the time. I thought what would happen if all the dancers got sick or broke their legs or something, but I never thought what would happen if we weren’t allowed to sit in a space together because of an airborne virus.

End of part one… part two will be in the Spring edition of ALT A REVIEW

WATCH THE RECENT #BBONFILM LIKE WATER HERE.

LIKE WATER acknowledges the resilience of our ancestors, passed down from generation to generation. A world unkind to our people, yet somehow we survive. A world that that has conditioned us to not see the beauty of our skin, hair, culture and our people. But like water we flow, like water we change shape. We remain resilient.

Concept, Choreography & Direction by Mthuthuzeli November
Director of Photography & Edited by Nauris Buksevics
Written by Asisipho Malunga, narration by Mthuthuzeli November
Composed by Georgina Lloyd-Owen
Dancers: José Alves, Isabela Coracy, Alexander Fadayiro, Marie Astrid Mence & Ebony Thomas

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