Ahead of their show tonight at Birmingham Hippodrome, the Phoenix spoke with the founder of Ballet Black Cassa Pancho MBE and Ebony Thomas Junior Artist with Ballet Black who trained at Elmhurst.
How important is Ballet Black in promoting ballet to a completely different audience?
CP: Ballet Black has been important to the ecology of ballet in the UK as we have helped to develop a more inclusive and diverse audience. Placing dancers of black and Asian descent on stage encourages a very different audience to the “typical” ballet audience – in most of our performances, you will see a multiracial crowd of all ages. As well as diversity, our use of choreographers and music from a wide range of disciplines and genres means that as well as ballet lovers, we draw an audience that are attracted to many different art forms.
Have you got an inspirational story to share of someone who you have met during your time with Ballet Black?
ET: I think the company is full of truly inspirational stories and to be honest mine is probably the least inspirational! Each person in Ballet Black has had to fight in their own way to get where they are today and I think that creates a hard working, determined and willing culture within the company. However with all due respect, I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling someone else’s story as it wouldn’t be mine to tell. What I will say though is I think the company itself is an inspirational story. Cassa started this company from scratch and it has now been going for 18 years. From the very beginnings of the company to where we are now, in what is a relatively short period of time, I think is an incredible achievement.
How does it feel to be a role model for young aspiring black and Asian dancers?
ET: Honestly, a bit strange! A couple years ago as a student I wouldn’t have even dreamt about answering a question like that ever, let alone 2 years into my career! I think the role myself and the whole company play is very important and a big responsibility, especially with what the company's goals are. If you look at the percentage of white to non-white dancers in ballet there’s a big imbalance. You could bring up many reasons for this, however where better place to start than the beginning. The percentage imbalance is there in local dance schools and also fee paying schools. So to try and even that out we need to engage those who may not have been inspired previously because they haven’t seen many people like themselves on stage. When you can’t relate to those you see, as a young person, you become less interested in whatever you’re watching. So when children of ethnicity come and watch our shows they will see there is a route for them and hopefully we can slowly inspire more and more to start dancing.
How did you originally get into dance and ballet?
ET: The story of how I got into ballet is quite ironic actually. When I was younger I was very sporty. I played rugby, football and little bit of cricket too. When I was 5 my mum suggested I should do ballet as it would help with my coordination, balance and agility for the sports I play. My answer? “No, ballet is for girls!". She wasn’t very impressed with that answer at all. A few months later I had to stay at a friends house after school as both my parents were working late and my grandparents, who would normally collect me after school, were also busy. It just so happens that on that day, my friend had a ballet class that I would have to go along to. This was a surprise as I didn’t know he danced! I went along however and quite enjoyed it, so I joined the local dance school run by a wonderful woman called Lousie Jefferson who I still keep in touch with. Eventually my friend gave up and I carried on. Your parents are always right because it did help me with my sports, which eventually gave way as I pursued a career in ballet.
What can people expect from The Suit?
CP: The Suit was choreographed for BB by Cathy Marston in 2018, and is inspired by the 1963 novel by South African author, Can Themba. It focuses on a seemingly happy relationship between a husband and wife in Sophiatown in Johannesburg, and the terrible devastation caused when an affair is discovered. It has moments of beauty and fun, but is also very moving and tragic – it’s definitely one to bring tissues to!
For more information and to book tickets check out https://www.brb.org.uk/whats-on/event/autumn-2019-mixed-bill