CIRA ROBINSON "IN CONVERSATION" WITH CASSA PANCHO
8th June 2021
In July 2020, Cassa Pancho, the Artistic Director and Founder of Ballet Black, was the LBC’s inaugural guest on Zoom. Almost a year later, on 8th June 2021, she acted as host to the Senior Artist of Ballet Black, Cira Robinson. Having talked about how Cira came to London from her birthplace in Ohio and via the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the conversation turned to the 30+ roles which Cira had created with Ballet Black.
Cassa started by taking us through Cira’s biography. She was born in Cincinnati and started dancing at the relatively late age of eight. Cira explained that the environment was not ideal for dance but she caught up fast: she graduated from the Performing Arts Theatre in 2004, before moving to New York and joining The Dance Theatre of Harlem. She danced for George W Bush in the White House – something Cira had previously felt hesitant about admitting but was now proud of.
Her first journey to the UK in 2008 was her first trip outside the US. “I came on a whim, I just showed up one day!” she said, and she spent a year dancing with Ballet Black, before returning to the United States, where she performed with Ballet Identity in Los Angeles. “I fell in love with ballet later in life and these gigs just made me love it even more,” she said.
Cira came back to Ballet Black in 2009, not least as she was interested in its ballet school. “She is one of the most popular teachers at school, and teaches three- to- eighteen-year olds,” Cassa told us. “I wanted to be around kids,” Cira elucidated. “It helped me grow as a dancer and a woman.”
In 2017, Cira and Ballet Black worked with Freed, the pointe shoe brand and created two new colours of shoes, with matching tights and soft shoes. This was a long overdue moment when shoes began to be developed with a range of colours for different colour skins.
“It started when I was in the process of pancaking shoes,” Cira said. “You need to continue the line [of the body]. The continuation of line means pink tights go into pink shoes.” But to continue the line for darker bodies, the dancers had to use pancake to change the colour which, because it contains moisture, had the effect of actually loosening the structure of the shoe. “I was walking past Freed and they had every swatch of colour except for brown,” said Cira. “Why would they? I found a swatch myself, then told Cassa what was going on. Cassa called them, they brought up swatches and the process began.”
“We went from black to light biscuity brown until we got to the authentic colour, the Cira,” Cassa added. “They also make a shade for mixed race and Asian dancers – a bronze colour. They came out in 2018 and we needed the shoe to cope with classical ballet technique. We called it the Cinderella shoe and shared a photo of three BB dancers in the three Freed shades: Cira in Ballet Brown, Marie Astrid Mence in Ballet Bronze and Sayaka Ichikawa in Ballet Pink.”
In 2014 came Cira’s first nomination for best classical female dancer at The Critics’ Circle Awards although she didn’t actually win. Cira didn’t seem to mind. “I was screaming on the inside,” she said. “To be acknowledged for the thing I love and the company I loved. I felt I belonged in this country.”
When Alexander McQueen died in 2010, Cira was one of 30 dancers featured in a Nick Knight film in tribute. They found a dress with a long train: “I felt so glamorous,” said Cira. “It was a great experience: they used an actual ballet dancer.” She then appeared in a special film called The Hall Awakens by the Royal Albert Hall to mark re-opening of the venue, in which she performed The Dying Swan. “They made me feel great. Being in an empty arena: it was eerie. The Dying Swan is emotion – there is a lot with face and port de bras.”
Cira also appeared in Darcy Bussell’s recent fundraiser at the Royal Albert Hall with Ballet Black. “It was surreal. There was an odd sense of togetherness. It was the first time in front of an audience since the first lockdown. We stepped out – and the audience and people were there. It gives you an extra something. But happens so quickly and then you’re done. It was the best nine minutes and 18 seconds of the whole year.”
Cira appeared in a film which was another recreation of The Dying Swan, with the director Mark Donne. It was an unusual experience “We recreated it in the Thames estuary, without music, and it was cold, and I was bourrée-ing in the sand – it was soggy,” says Cira. “He wanted pink tights, pink shoes and a white leotard. I drove out there with him and his dog and they didn’t know anything about the dance world. My pointe shoes were dying. It was chilly. In the end it was about five hours out there, but he was pleased, and I was pleased as well. I didn’t appreciate it until Ballet Black put it on the website.” It is now on the company’s YouTube channel.
In her time with Ballet Black, Cira has created roles in 30 different ballets with 20 different choreographers, including Christopher Hampson, Will Tucket, Cathy Marsden, Arthur Pita, Joseph Sissens, to name but a few and we were shown a video of a selection of these. Cassa then revealed that she had asked a selection of choreographers for a sentence about working with Cira – and some had supplied a lot more than that.
Chris Hampson wrote two things: "Curious about every element of creating ballet. And a true interpreter,” Cassa read. He also said, “I knew it would be called Storyville and Cira would dance the part of Nola, a rags to riches story.” Until first day they worked together, Christopher didn’t know her [Nola] - but then he did.
Arthur Pita was next. “I had the huge pleasure of creating two roles for the superb Cira,” he wrote. “She devours choreography and revels in the freedom of her movement. She is capable of casting spells.”
The admiration is mutual. “I think he brings this fun element to it,” Cira said of Arthur. “I feel like he’s curious as well. He allows us to enter his world and ideas. It is so far out there and that’s where I want to be. The audience also needs to go there. He is really pleasant, never stroppy, there’s nothing but goodness and he brings good energy with him.”
Sophie Laplane wrote, Cira is a “joy, open, generous, invested in her art. She has an intuitive understanding of what choreographer is looking for.”
“How can one be intuitive?” Cassa asked.
“I don’t know,” said Cira. “I never thought about it. I am a people pleaser. I like going into characters, fulfilling someone’s image of something. I’m a chameleon. I want to know if I’m capable of it. The best part of it is that nothing is stagnant. I like going home tired and exhausted, I know I gave it everything. I know I did my job, fulfilled my work as a dancer that day to myself.”
Will Tuckett wrote, “Working with Cira is an absolute treat. We understand each other on many levels. She’s an astute and intuitive dancer. She shifted an emotionally abstract situation. She embodies a choreographer’s idea as if it’s nothing at all, which is a rare and precious thing. She’s a marvel theatrically. You can probably tell I’m a fan.” Cira was visibly moved by this.
Cassa told us that Cira and BB are now working on a different ballet with Will Tucket, set to the poetry of Adrienne Rich. “It’s a challenge, but we know enough about each other that I understand where he’s going to end up,” said Cira. “He’s keeping me on my toes. The poems are so different that, three poems in, you’re someone else. You switch it at the drop of a dime. The poems are saying a lot. Everything hits home in some way. I like to say the audience knows a liar when they see one, so I make the audience feel words being spoken.”
Cassa resumed. Martin Lawrance, the contemporary choreographer is making a dance film with BB now. “I first saw Cira in the Linbury in 2008 and was immediately attracted to her stage presence,” she read. Before he made his first piece for Ballet Black, the year 2009 was the first ballet made on you, Pendulum. You were the principal female role. “I discovered a dancer with no barriers to making a ballet work,” she read. “Still today Cira wants to learn which is astounding for a dancer. I do a lot of grounding work on the floor, she is on pointe but comes down grounded to the floor, which is really difficult for ballet dancers.” Cira laughed at that and agreed.
Cira has cited Marianela Nuñez as her favourite dancer and they even share the same birthday. “Love of classical ballet is part of your bones,” said Cassa. “But in Ballet Black you have to dance with extremely modern choreography, on pointe. What’s that like?”
“It’s something I know in myself I have to get over,” said Cira. “I split myself down the middle. The ballet said says get up, straighten my knees, but other side says, I have to do it. Embracing dance in all forms is being a dancer. I need to be well versed in other things as well and then have really hot Epsom salt baths at night. It’s different.”
“Repetitions with modern choreographers are very different different from ballet,” observed Cassa.
“No need for kneepads,” said Cira.
“Is diversity good?” asked Cassa.
Cassa then suggested the two of the them address the relationship between the director/ballerina, who are also friends, while Cassa is also a rehearsal director. “Where to lift lid on this?” she asked in what became a very personal exchange.
“It’s not normal but a new normal,” Cira replied.
“For me, you have helped me keep the company going,” said Cassa. “By being brilliant in the studio and supportive behind-the-scenes.”
“Coming from the Dance Theatre of Harlem, working with Arthur Mitchell, he was wonderful,” said Cira firmly. “He ran a tight ship. With directors like that, all you want is for them to know your name. Then I came here, I’m alone here and you and your husband have been that [family]. It goes beyond the workplace.”
Cassa asked how the pandemic had changed Cira’s outlook.
“Once the pandemic hit, everyone was told to go home,” said Cira. “We thought it would be a couple of weeks, but it was extended. So, I began to think, if I can’t dance, why am I here? What is my purpose? I thought that I was done and would retire. But after June/July this year, I realised I’m not done. I need this in my life. It made me realise that I need to dance and that’s it. There’s no way around it. It was opening. I saw me still being a dancer for many years to go.”
Cira then revealed that while if she hadn’t been a dancer, she’d have been an actress, in actual fact, when she was younger, she’d thought about being a paediatrician...
What is her favourite Ballet Black repertoire piece? “There are a couple – The Dream, The Suit. I felt that took me somewhere as a storyteller,” she said. “How to approach it? I started thinking, it’s about a cheating wife. Also, it was the combination of music, José Alves’s face. I felt I dug deep into it. The Suit was incredibly emotional. [José’s} wonderful, he’s got that smile. It made me dive deeper. It felt organic and real.
What is happening over the summer?
“Lots of dancing, a couple of filming things, teaching in Yorkshire, performing in Japan, Lady Macbeth, bringing out the crazy,” said Cira. “It’s choreographed by Christopher Marney. Then back to Ballet Black in September, hoping to tour the new Will Tucket around the country, including at the Opera House.”
And what’s it like performing in so many different venues? “I like to consider Ballet Black the underdogs,” said Cira. “We can dance in a shoebox. So when there is space, this is great. It’s about the audience, giving them a show. Sometimes we go to a place where many people haven’t seen Black dancers until Ballet Black.”
The Company begins its next tour in October at The Lowry in Salford with a double bill comprising Will Tuckett’s Then or Now and Mthuthuzeli November’s The Waiting Game.
Written by Virginia Blackburn and approved by Cira Robinson and Cassa Pancho
Photo by ASH