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Ballet Black

Questioning the Color of Ballet

‘A New Beginning,' 'Elégie,' 'Pas de Trois,' 'The Boogaloo Rooms'

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

February 21-22, 2004 -- Cochrane Theatre, London

Cassa Pancho, director of Ballet Black has a vision: “I started Ballet Black as a small thing – hoping to create a place where black dancers could come and train in classical ballet with the view to having a small company one day.” Pancho has elicited support from like minded people who include the Royal Opera House, Deborah Bull, the Cochrane Theatre, Leone Urdang, the Urdang Dance Academy and musicians and dancers who are giving time and effort for little or no monetary gain to make Ballet Black the dance school and company it hopes to be.

What does this say about practitioners and supporters of classical ballet here in Britain? What does this say about The Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and many other prestigious ballet companies and schools here in the United Kingdom who have the resources to offer opportunities for ballet training and employment but have no notable presence of dancers with African or Asian heritages? Is it a fact that young aspiring dancers of African or Asian heritage will meet insurmountable boundaries like mediocre training, discouragement, and lack of opportunities for employment in British ballet schools and companies if there is no Ballet Black? It would seem so given the few dancers of diverse heritages employed by British ballet companies, prejudicial teaching practices experienced by dancers of diverse heritages, and continued ignorance and racialised beliefs regarding the black dancing body as witnessed in this British context by Pancho. In her program note, Pancho mentions Arthur Mitchell and Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) as an example of an “all-black ballet company” and states there is no equivalent in the UK. One has to ask, though, is a company and school like DTH even possible in Britain?

Britain does not have the contextualised interactions that inspired Arthur Mitchell. Arthur Mitchell was a highly respected, principal dancer of the New York City Ballet Company (NYCB). George Balanchine choreographed "Agon" as well as other major ballets on Mitchell. Mitchell in the prime of his performance career left the stage to devote his life to building a school and a company that now, some 35 years later, boasts an international touring company of 44 dancers with a repertory of master works from some of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century.

Mitchell’s choice to start DTH began in 1969. His lived experience in America during the 1960’s was a time of extreme racial discrimination and civil strife, a time that saw the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. But this was also the time when Mitchell from his position of power in NYCB equipped with his particular informed lived experience as an African American combined with his embodied knowledge of classical ballet and repertory of NYCB sought the support of an extraordinary master teacher and colleague, Karel Shook, to begin the dream of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Britain will not have a Dance Theatre of Harlem because the context, the time, and the people are not the same. But, yes, Britain seems to need something like DTH given the perspectives of Cassa Pancho and supporters of Ballet Black.

Ballet Black performed at the Cochrane Theatre 21-22 February 2004. It was a program of four ballets. "A New Beginning" by Denzil Bailey is an accessible opener complete with a live band upstage right. This work had the dancers wearing oranges and browns of varied styles of skirts, tights and shirts. This is ballet with a twist and the twist is the use of jazz music and polyrhythms in the use of lose hips and isolation of body parts. Celia Grannum and Jeremiah Tatum were outstanding partners, with Denzil Bailey, Florence Kollie, Jake Nwogu, and Cassa Pancho adding their particular kind of support within the tapestry of this work. Although the dancers and music were a joy to watch and hear there were weaknesses in technical skill as evidence in some sickled feet, lifted shoulders in jumps and weak body lines.

"Elégie" by Stephen Sheriff uses Francis Poulenc’s music of the same name for Horn & Piano. It seemed an abstract work that relied on body design and the dynamic of the movement to support its thematic structure. Essentially this was a non-literal work. Close to the end, a cannon of falls and recovery from the floor resolved with the dancers arriving each in turn surrounding the piano played by Gwilym Simcock and french horn player, Paul Robinson. This work illustrated the resolve of the dancers but also seemed like a new idea that the dancers were just beginning to discover. It seemed that without the hook of a “story”, “form” was hard to portray and the lack of dynamic modulation made the dancers’ task even harder.

"Pas de Trois" choreographed by Patrick Lewis opens with Florence Kollie seated in a white chair. The white chair is the third party in this charming trio that included Denzil Bailey. Dressed in a red tutu with green underskirt and point shoes this work gave Kollie the opportunity to show off her chicky side even if it was a bit chilly. Bailey was the willing participant in this dance joke with amusing interactions for the space, the music, the chair and each dancer. It was just a bit of fun and the audience loved it.
"The Boogaloo Rooms" choreographed by Cassa Pancho presented the dancers in black satin skirts and shoes, ties and slacks that, with be bop and lyrical jazz moves supported by The Ballet Black Jazz Quartet, was a total success. Here the dancers were in their element, flying across the stage enjoying every moment of this familiar dance landscape. Notable in this work was Jake Nwogu who beamed from beginning to end.

Classically trained then directed to finesse, a shimmy in the shoulders while on full pointe or performing a jazz drag after a temp levé en arabesque takes training to the bone. The dancer bends the form because her or his technical foundation is solid. It takes time for embodied knowledge to change a dancer’s body, to penetrate the surface and not be simply “skin deep”; no matter whether the skin is white, brown, black, or yellow. For the abstract to be portrayed, for form to be realised, you need the bone and tendons to dictate to muscles; you need the mind to know the art even if it is not quite realised in the body. If this ingredient is minimal or nascent then maturity, finesse or direction must camouflage imperfections.

Friends, associates, and supporters of Ballet Black can be lenient but the legacy of classical ballet is a bit more hard nosed. Flaws in technical skills, lifts filled with effort and clumsy, and body image problems are noticeable issues that no balletomane will excuse and really should not be tolerated. The responsibility to the legacy of classical ballet that includes Arthur Mitchell and DTH is too profound and the stakes are too high. Training physically and mentally to build assuredness, utter commitment and time will replace the bits of apprehension and slack in the technique witnessed on stage in the 21 February performance.

Given this, though, it is a beginning. Florence Kollie with private training with Celia Mayorcas has a quiet disposition and is still finding her performance voice. Celia Grannum, trained at New York University’s  Tish School of the Arts, exudes confidence and grace. Jeremiah Tatum whose Alvin Ailey flamboyance and Dance Theatre of Harlem School technical prowess are testimony of American dance training institutions. Neil Totton who got his training in the United States also has classical lines and a quiet prowess. Jack Nwogu, trained at Central School of Ballet here in Britain is young and has a few more lessons to learn in classical ballet but this young dancer can jump to great heights and has a brilliant performance spirit that is even higher.

Cassa Pancho is not the technical giant of Arthur Mitchell but there is this vision that she and Denzil Bailey are willing to push with all their combined strength. Their responsibility though is to acknowledge the legacy of classical ballet, all of it, both the good and bad, and adhere to its standard of perfection. There is also their responsibility to peoples of diverse heritages and the value and level of commitment fathers, mothers, aspiring children and young adults place on becoming classical ballet dancers. There is a mind set required to endure the trials that becoming a classical ballet dancer entails that will spell success whether the boundaries are up or down. How long to the fruition of Ballet Black’s vision? It took Mitchell 35 years and given the accolades of his company reviewers still cite the company as a “black” ballet company.

It seems that despite DTH's accomplishments as a neoclassical company with dancers of phenomenal classical skill, in this British context DTH is an anomaly and its dancers are considered “black dancers" who do classical ballet and not classically trained dance artists. DTH has broken the boundaries but not changed minds. What idea is to be pursued: “black” dancers who do classical ballet or dancers who choose from a position of power and knowledge what dance art they want to perform?

Let not the social and political concept of “black” that appears to be a stigma in this British context precipitate segregation and not change the very boundaries that have precipitated the forming of Ballet Black in the first place. It will most likely take 35 years for Ballet Black to break the boundaries here in Britain that DTH has broken in America but changing people’s ideas on what ballet requires and who can do it whether the person is white, black, brown or yellow seems destined to be an on-going struggle. 35 years is at least three generations in dance training and careers. Will Pancho and Bailey sustain this level of commitment with all its multiple responsibilities and tribulations?

So yes Britain seems to need a company like Ballet Black. Is the present Ballet Black Company the answer? What is gained from the inspiration of DTH is just that, and inspiration in itself is important for any vision to realise its goal. DTH is not the model to use here in Britain but it does have ingredients within its success that the current Ballet Black Company can profit from. Only time will tell whether Ballet Black will achieve its vision on its own terms and break the boundaries that seem to perpetuate themselves no matter what “we” do.

Edited by Jeff

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