In the final Spotlight of our Black History Month series, we catch up with Ballet Black’s ‘Boss Lady’ and Director, Cassa Pancho MBE. Cassa very kindly shoehorned some time in her diary with us at an incredibly busy and exciting time, as the Ballet continues its current UK tour. We tap into her perspectives on a number of topics, including how attitudes towards Black and Asian artists have shifted in recent years, why it’s so important to engage young people in changing the landscape of classic ballet, and how the company’s vision has evolved since its original conception.
How have you seen attitudes towards Black and Asian artists change over the past few years?
Cassa: The change is gradual. It’s not so much that companies don’t realise that Black and Asian dancers are equal to their Caucasian counterparts, as proven already by Arthur Mitchell and Dance Theatre of Harlem, plus the great Black artists in ballet throughout time, but we’re still pushing against racial caricature and stereotypes in traditional repertoire. We’re still hearing that blackface is art. We’re still dealing with perceived issues around hair. We’re still fighting to have all dancewear brands make products in more than one or two shades, and for all ages. Things are changing slowly, but it’s got to be about more than having a couple of Black, Brown or Asian dancers in a company. How about the gatekeepers? Who is making the decisions and programming the work?
What has been your biggest breakthrough or proudest moment so far in changing the landscape of classic ballet?
Cassa: There are a lot: selling out the Opera House for over 14 years, and then the Barbican. Seeing a diverse audience attending ballet, and loving it. Creating shades of brown and bronze shoes with our dancer, Cira Robinson and Freed, the UK’s oldest dance shoe maker. Performing with Stormzy at Glastonbury. Seeing our Company dancer Mthuthuzeli November achieve recognition as a choreographer, who is now in demand around the world. Seeing the joy on our students’ faces because they love ballet so much, and will never feel like ballet isn’t open to them in some form.
Why do you believe it’s so important to engage with people from a really young age with initiatives like this one?
Cassa: It’s important in ballet because to have any chance at being the best in this particular art form, you must start to train the body at a very young age. Ballet is at the elite skill level of an Olympic athlete – it takes time to train a dancer. The younger our students start, the more ballet is part of their lives, so even if they don’t go on to become a professional ballerina, which few people do, they will hopefully learn to love and appreciate the arts and become future audience members.
How has the company’s vision evolved since it began? Have movements like BLM caused shifts, for example?
Cassa: The most recent Black Lives Matter movement has made me more vocal on the subject of discrimination in ballet. I had always hoped that we could show rather than tell people that skin colour should not matter as long as you are a great dancer. George Floyd’s murder shook me out of that and I have found myself taking on the challenge of talking to people about the issues that Black, Brown and Asian dancers can come up against in classical ballet.
What has Ballet Black got planned for 2022?
Cassa: We are returning to the Barbican with a new double bill of ballets in March 2022, we’re releasing new films and we’re hoping to expand our Junior School – so 2022 is going to be a busy year for us!