CASSA PANCHO MBE, FOUNDER AND ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF BALLET BLACK
“IN CONVERSATION” with Linda Gainsbury
13th July 2020 via Zoom
This was the first ever ‘virtual’ event to be held by The London Ballet Circle. Audience members were assembled in the ‘waiting room’ as they arrived and were connected at 7.00pm. They were requested to keep their audio setting on mute and to have their video off so that the guest and host were the only two images on screen. However, throughout the evening, it was possible for members to post questions in the online chat box and to have them answered as the conversation progressed.
In welcoming Cassa, Linda referred to the ‘programme’, with some background detail about her and Ballet Black, which had been issued beforehand. She also reminded everyone that Cassa had last spoken to the LBC in September 2016 when she had talked about her childhood, her dance training and her degree studies.
Asked about the vision which she had had at 21 as a result of what she saw or, rather, didn’t see around her, Cassa explained that her initial thinking, borne of her degree research, was to create a space where Black and Asian dancers could come and not only be surrounded by people who looked like them but also, in order to change the power dynamic, to be under the charge of someone who looked like them. So she had approached Denzil Bailey, whom she had interviewed for her dissertation and who had just retired from English National Ballet. He didn’t want to become involved in running a company but was happy to teach. Cassa added that, had she known what was involved, she wouldn’t have embarked on it.
However, having got Denzil involved, she asked the RAD for a studio space and advertised in various places for dancers to audition. Back then, it was possible to use the word “Black” in a way which would not be possible in 2020 and many (mainly pre-professional) promising dancers came forward, thus reinforcing the need for the kind of space Cassa had envisaged.
She “knew nothing about any of the things you need to do to run a company”. Cassa’s starting point was to seek free studio space, which she was given initially by the RAD. When they began to charge, she paid out of her own earnings from teaching ballet and working as a receptionist. Subsequently, she met each challenge, such as becoming a charity and finding Trustees, when that was the only way forward in terms of making progress. In this way, Cassa was able to build the company up over a period of 3/4 years.
A key point in Ballet Black’s development was when Cassa’s persistence in contacting Deborah Bull (the former RB Principal and then the Director of ROH2) paid off. Deborah’s suggestion that the dancers use the ROH studios when they were free at the weekend was pivotal: once the word got round about the company’s new base, its footing in the dance world was transformed and it seemed that everyone wanted to audition. Subsequently, performance opportunities in The Linbury expanded from a short appearance to celebrate Black History Month to Ballet Black having its own week-long season between 2005 and the closure in 2015. The advice Cassa received from Deborah was also invaluable, not least in terms of how to speak diplomatically to choreographers.
In terms of the budget needed to run and develop the company, the expenditure gradually shifted from £200 a week through £25,000 a year to £100,000, and, more recently, to £500,00 plus. Ballet Black’s growing reputation enabled Cassa to apply to various Trusts/Foundations, most of which wanted the assurance of Arts Council (ACE) approval. Cassa’ response to this had been to invite representatives of the bodies concerned to come and look at the company’s work and make their own judgements. Being accepted as an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) was a long and arduous process. The first rejection stated that supporting Ballet Black would not represent value for money; the second rejection suggested that, if the company’s work was African or modern dance, it would be funded, whereas ballet would not. The third attempt involved an application for a one-off grant of £5000 which, despite Cassa having sought advice from ACE before submitting it, was also rejected on the grounds that such monies were being directed to the larger ballet companies.
However, at that juncture and as a result of being based at the ROH, Cassa met a generous private donor. Additionally, Ballet Black received commissioning grants from ROH2 (and left the decisions to Cassa). Then, in 2018, the company achieved NPO status with the Arts Council. Recently, ACE had awarded Ballet Black £129,832 of emergency funding to help to sustain its losses between March to September 2020. This was an especially crucial period for the company as the Barbican Season (which was lost) usually subsidises the touring to places where it is important to build or sustain audiences – and all this was lost too.
Referring to the recently announced £1.57bn funding for the Arts, Cassa thought it likely that a significant amount of the money would go towards maintaining the physical infrastructure. She did not want Ballet Black to take out an expensive loan so she would apply for assistance if the criteria for this or a second tranche of money covered, for example, Ballet Black’s lost autumn tour.
At this point, discussion turned to Ballet Ballet’s reputation for commissioning new choreography. Clearly, said Cassa, the company had no good reason to dance Swan Lake but an obvious need for work designed for 6 to 8 dancers. In the company’s early days, unlike in 2020, there were not all that many people making new ballet and young choreographers soon came to realise that Ballet Black was the place to go to if they wanted to try their hand and have their work shown in a safe environment (i.e. The Linbury), as distinct from being over-exposed on a main stage. This was why Ballet Black came to be known as much, if not more, as a promoter of new work than it was for the skin colour of its dancers. The company’s 50th commission had been due to première at the Barbican in March.
Commenting that the March programme was due to show works by two choreographers who were from very different ethnic and artistic backgrounds, Linda asked about Cassa’s programming decisions. She replied that, if she was bringing a work back – for example, Arthur Pita’s A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was Ballet Black’s first tutu ballet – she would brief the chosen choreographer for the second piece (in that case, Cathy Marston) to provide a complete contrast. If there were to be two new works on the bill, Cassa tries to squeeze as much information as possible out of one of the choreographers before discussing with the second, including their choice of composer. This did not always work smoothly, not least because choreographers were prone to change their minds. For example, the programme scheduled for March (Mthuthuzeli November’s The Waiting Game and Will Tuckett’s Then or Now) had different starting points but both would be word heavy, a first for Ballet Black, yet completely different. Cassa revealed that Will’s work was drawing on poetry by Adrienne Rich which, although it could apply to any situation, was likely to make the audience feel (wrongly) that it was specifically about Brexit, Windrush and Covid-19.
Responding to an audience question about how commissions were priced, Cassa explained that she needed to work on the basis of the cost to Ballet Black – for example, a 40 minute work involving the whole company would be likely to take up 6 weeks out the 45 contracted weeks per year with the cost of the studio, dancers, designers, and coaching also factored into the equation to help her arrive at a figure. A less experienced choreographer would command a lower fee than a more established one.
Cassa felt that her ability to assess choreography had developed greatly over the years, “Nothing teaches you more what good choreography looks like than sitting in the studio watching it come together”. She does intervene in the creative process but not in front of the dancers. She rues the occasion when other priorities kept her away from the studio and a work received justifiably poor reviews when she could, and should, have done something about it. Cassa added that, often, as a new piece gets bedded in on tour, there is an opportunity for a re-visit with the choreographer.
Interestingly, the audience reaction was often different in The Barbican to that on tour, although both seemed to enjoy the opportunity to laugh. Fifty percent of Ballet Black’s Barbican audiences were new to the theatre, which was a big plus for the Barbican but, possibly given the choice available to people in London, they seemed to like abstract and narrative ballets equally. Outside London, there was a clear preference for narrative works. There, “classical sells” : whatever the location and whatever the mix within the audience, they seemed to respond to a picture of a dancer on pointe. Cassa feels that the company has been doing well in terms of building its audience – capacity stands at between 60% and 100% - and is concerned that some of the momentum might have been lost because of the necessary cancellations.
The Ballet Black Junior School started only a year after the company’s inception as it quickly became apparent that children also needed an environment with role models/teachers who looked like them. About half a dozen 3 year olds who Cassa was teaching in nursery school were encouraged to do extra classes on a Saturday and, as they progressed, younger ones joined them regularly to the point where there are now over 150 in the (very busy) school. A real positive for Cassa is that the families are very much involved and, because of that, are introduced to the theatre and professional shows which might not otherwise have been within their natural orbit.
Commenting on the multiple roles which Cassa played, Linda enquired how the dancers perceived her. “Definitely as the Artistic Director”, answered Cassa. Discharging this role had been very challenging at the beginning, not least because Cassa was younger than most of the dancers and this affected her ability to exercise authority. Now, she was older than most of the people she worked with and that, combined with her accumulated experience, meant that what she said carried the necessary weight. Although she had to manage many different stakeholders, the dancers were the most challenging by far because she was with them all the time. Her relations with, for example, the Board could be compartmentalised but, if there had been “a moment” with a dancer, she had to continue in close contact with that person for the rest of the day. Cassa explained that whereas, in a large company, it was clear that Principals and Soloists would get opportunities ahead of the Corps. In Ballet Black, while there were different levels indicative of the length of time a dancer had been there, it was for each choreographer to choose which dancer(s) sparked their creativity, irrespective of ‘seniority’.
Although, in many senses, Cassa was a lone operator she did have people from whom she could seek advice. In addition to Deborah Bull in the earlier days, the Board was very supportive, Christopher Hampson (the AD and CEO of Scottish Ballet) provided an artistic sounding board and Kwame Kwei Armah, who is a Patron, helped her to reflect on the various issues and demands concerned with race in society and in ballet. In addition, the Chair, Althea Efunshile CBE, who hailed from a varied but non-ballet background, was especially good in helping Cassa to learn how to “say no”.
Asked how she measured success in every sense of the word, Cassa said that the Board had been asking this question just before ‘lockdown’. The Trustees were wondering whether achievement might be represented in having, say, a company of 30 dancers and a building. But this kind of upscaling was not for her. In her view, what set Ballet Black apart, and underpinned its success, was its small size and consequent flexibility and adaptability. The company knew how to go from large scale, for example, appearing alongside Birmingham Royal Ballet at Sadler’s Wells, to being able to make an impact on a very tiny stage to which no other company toured.
Nominations and awards used to matter to Cassa more than they do now. She appreciated the recognition and would like to see Cira Robinson, who was “now at the top of her game”, win a top female dancer accolade. José Alves’s success (his performance in The Suit was voted the Best Male Classical performance for the 2017/18 season by the Critics’ Circle against exceptionally strong competition) was a wonderful moment for him and the company. José came from a small town in Brazil and could never have dreamed of such a win: he was shaking for a long time afterwards. From the point of view of Ballet Black, this achievement was helpful in moving the perceptions of “people who needed to be humoured” and, of course, the Board was very happy!
A member of the audience asked about the partnership with Freed, the dance shoemakers. Being “thoroughly fed-up” with having to pancake her shoes, Cira Robinson had approached Freed for alternatives but, when she was asked to source swatches of suitable satin herself, Cassa had intervened to suggest that that groundwork should be for Freed to undertake. Thus, eventually, the Ballet Brown and Ballet Bronze ranges were born and, to Cassa’s delight, not only the company dancers but also all students now had a choice of shoe colour, including pink if that was what they preferred.
Cassa emphasised that, although it might be less tangible, a key indicator of Ballet Black’s success lay in “causing people to have to think”.
Linda wondered whether there was sufficient thinking in schools: in the World Ballet School streaming the previous week, involving ballet schools from across the globe, it was possible to spot a number of Black male students but, although there were numerous Japanese, Korean and Chinese girls, there was possibly only one Black girl. Cassa believes there is an issue at the training level – and that is ‘colourism’. The fact that darker skinned girls did not get the same opportunities was something which schools were reluctant to talk about. She thought that the current resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement could provide some momentum for change. The situation in 2020 was different from before: because of Covid-19, people were at home and being confronted with repeat images of the murder of a Black man in a way which forced them to give thought to what was happening. As far as ballet companies and schools were concerned there was a need to acknowledge that British society had inherent racist attitudes which the organisations were not free from. Some Artistic Directors (ADs) were ‘stepping up’ and undertaking internal reviews.
Cassa emphasised that she wasn’t accusing any AD of being racist but, rather, noting that we all have an unconscious bias about everyone we look at and, where Black women are concerned, the tendency is for stereotypes to surface and cause the possibility of a Black dancer being cast in one of ballet’s more fragile roles to be discounted. If an AD thought, as some did in the past, that having a Black girl in the corps was distracting, he or she was, in effect underestimating the audience. Cassa had drafted 15 points (which are on the Ballet Black website) which she hoped would help ADs to question the practices within their organisation from all angles – for example, was there diversity of thought and opinion at Board level; do the outreach programmes really help young people find pathways into dance as opposed to simply picking the most naturally talented and thus leaving others behind? In saying this Cassa was not asking anyone to lower their standards, which was an all too common assumption, but she felt that some institutions would benefit from outside help, not just in scrutinising the way they worked but also in providing a confidential reference point for dancers who were trained to be obedient and grateful and were reluctant to complain for fear of reprisal.
Cassa’s responded with a resounding “Yes” to the question as to whether ballets which perpetuated stereotypes should be revisited. She said that is wasn’t just about race and she knew that ADs would disagree with her on the grounds that certain heritage works were an essential element of their recurring repertoire. Cassa’s counter argument was to question whether they would be comfortable sitting in a La Bayadère audience comprised mainly of people from South East Asia or watching the Chinese or Arabian dances from The Nutcracker among people from China or Arabia. [She would dispense with Petrushka altogether.] It was a start to acknowledge in a programme that what was being portrayed on stage – for example the subjugation of women and slavery in Le Corsaire – was no longer acceptable. However, Cassa felt that the whole ballet world – which was still relatively small globally – should together look at the libretti with an eye to preserving the elements which are great while also ensuring that anyone could come and watch all ballets without discomfort. She thought that audiences could help by writing in, as a significant volume of correspondence could begin to worry companies that the box office appeal of certain works might diminish and adversely affect their income.
Cassa was in touch with Phil Chan, one of two American dancers behind Final Bow for Yellow Face which provided a platform for discussing the issue of race in the context of dance and his advice was not to accuse an organisation of inappropriate practices but to pose questions of the kind that she had now committed to print. While, for a company such as Ballet Black, an essential part of its mission was to have these conversations, Black artists should not be constantly confronted with their race. Interviews with Cira Robinson, for example, invariably began with what it was like to be a Black dancer rather than focusing on her as an artist, whereas a White ballerina would never be asked what is was like to be White.
Although Cassa had a Trinidadian father, her ‘White’ appearance meant that she would often overhear unpleasant asides from stage crew and others such that she would feel the need to point out that it was her father that they were talking about. Caucasians did not experience anything like that.
Reverting to the earlier question about measuring success, Cassa said that what was important was not so much that there would no longer be a need for Ballet Black to exist but, rather, that it would come to be treated first and foremost as a ballet company to which the normal, primary questions would be, for example, about the repertoire, the daily schedule, and the experience of performing in a particular location.
Questions hanging in the Zoom chat box from the beginning of the conversation were focused on how ‘things’ were for the company once ‘lockdown’ came into force. Cassa said that they were “devastated” to lose the Barbican season with its two premières, photo opportunities with “the marvellous Bill Cooper”, press coverage, including reviews, and the opportunity to reconnect with the audience. Normally, there is then a two-week break before the Spring Tour, so the first step had been to extend that holiday and then, resignedly, cancel the entire tour. Cassa hadn’t wanted to call dancers into meetings where there could be no plans to impart but there were daily Zoom classes which gave company members the opportunity to say “Hi” and to try to keep in shape. The school had also continued to operate via Zoom.
Even before they had issued mats to the dancers, a priority concern had been for everyone’s mental health during the enforced lay-off. So a link was established with a multi-lingual counselling service which dancers could connect with for help if they needed it
Cassa quickly sought permission from choreographers to enable some of the repertoire to be streamed online and this had lent more urgency to existing plans for proper filming. Cassa did not envisage a need to change the business model: Ballet Black was fortunate insofar as the company was small (8 dancers and herself plus two others behind the scenes) and was therefore able to be more responsive to change. She felt that they had always been inventive but, in common with other organisations, “even greater inventiveness has been forced upon us”.
Therefore, a mixed media approach to programming would carry through into the future, as would building up audiences in the UK and forging performing links overseas. Agencies in Italy and Germany had approached Ballet Black and there was significant financial benefit from having tour dates overseas. While there were amateur level dance groups for Black and Asian dancers in other countries, Cassa was unaware of there being any company similar to Ballet Black. Having the opportunity to travel and perform in different environments was hugely beneficial for the dancers, as was the amazing experience of appearing, at very short notice, in Stormzy’s act on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage.
Cassa was going to have to re-jig her plans to celebrate the first 20 years of the company but, based on what was currently known, she hopes that Ballet Black, and the wider ballet scene, would not be fundamentally damaged in the wake of Covid-19 – indeed it could be richer as everyone added variety into their portfolio. Although the company would come back to work in September, taking care to rebuild fitness and technique gradually, it wasn’t possible to predict when performances could start again. For that to happen, dancers, stage crew and audiences would need to be able to come together safely in the same space. Coincidentally, this year’s submissions to the Arts Council had been required to reference digital work and, in that respect, Ballet Black was “ready to go”.
Asked from the audience what she did to relax, Cassa replied, “I sit down with a rum cocktail or rum punch!” She explained that it was almost impossible for her to relax completely, not least because she also looked after the company’s social media accounts. However, she experienced each element of her role differently: for example, an interview was less taxing than rehearsals or a Board meeting.
In conclusion, Linda drew on a quote from Luke Jennings, the erstwhile critic of The Observer, as follows: “In an age of pseudo-talent and superficial achievement, Ballet Black is the real thing: smart, serious, committed and beautiful” and, asking Cassa to excuse her being personal, suggested that, as a result of the preceding 90 minutes, everyone in the audience would be thinking, “Just like its Artistic Director”. In thanking Cassa for an inspiring evening, she asked her to imagine the kind of prolonged and appreciative applause which she would have received had we all been together physically.
Written by Linda Gainsbury; edited/approved by Cassa Pancho
© The LBC
[No charge was made for this digital event but those attending were invited to donate in order to support the LBC's grant aid to student dancers, schools and smaller companies in their outreach and project work.]