Interview with Cassa Pancho, Artistic Director and Founder of Ballet Black

by Simonetta Dixon on October 3, 2011

Cassa Pancho. © Steve Schofield. Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window.

Eleven years ago the half Trinidadian, half British 21 year-old Cassa Pancho was wondering why there were almost no ethnic minorities in classical dance companies. She was studying for a degree at the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), and to try to find an answer she made it the subject of her final-year dissertation. And as a result, she formed Ballet Black in 2001.

She has often been called ‘ambitious’ or ‘driven’, but she really dislikes those descriptions as she says that is not how she is at all; it is simply a matter of once you’ve decided you are going to do something, you do it. From very humble beginnings, the company has gone on to win the Critics’ Circle Award for Outstanding Company in 2009. Cassa invited me to watch the company rehearse a new piece being made for them in one of the ROH studios, and their joy in dancing was infectious, even through a glass wall. Cassa, however, discovered that dancing was not the path she would follow…

You trained as a dancer; why did you not pursue dance as a career?

I started at the age of 2½. I eventually got to the RAD but in my first year had terrible pain in my back. It was found to be a stress fracture on my spine, and I had to take two years off to recover. During that time, I dreaded the thought of dancing again, so it obviously wasn’t for me. But I wanted to get my degree, so when I went back I learned all about how things work backstage, and discovered that I really liked choreography, which I’d never been much good at. I spent my third year at the RAD creating dance pieces and researching and writing my dissertation on why there is such a lack of black women in classical ballet companies.

So is that how you started germinating the seeds of Ballet Black?

Yes. It sounds crazy now, but while doing the research and doing my choreography, it seemed natural to put the two together. I started thinking “what if I could form a company that would give black women a chance to dance in a classical company, and dance my choreography?”, which I was sure no-one else would want to dance. By the end of my third year I was very serious about doing it, but everyone thought I was insane and that it was totally unrealistic.

How did you take it from idea to reality?

Well, I thought that if I wanted to do this, I’d better put some money into it myself, as there was no money to be had. So I became a ballet teacher in the evenings, and worked as a receptionist during the day. Doing two jobs, I was able to save a bit of money. The RAD gave me free studio space on a Sunday (as the ROH is doing now), so myself and Denzil Bailey (who was one of the first black dancers in ENB) started holding auditions for the new company. We had all kinds turn up, many who weren’t even ballet dancers but just wanted to see what it was all about! But about 6-8 months later, we put on our first show; we had 6 dancers, plus myself and Denzil. I can’t believe how bold we were: that first show was a fundraiser in the Genee studio at the RAD; we charged £100 per head to come, and we sold all the tickets! So that was a very encouraging start.

Sarah Kundi & Damien Johnson in Denzil Bailey's A New Beginning.
© Bill Cooper. Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window.

Did you come to any conclusions as to why there are so few black women classical dancers?

I think the thing that struck me most when I was doing my research was that there are so very few black classical dance teachers. Why should a black parent take their child to a dance class where they are the only black face in the room? And even if the child was ok and got through there and into a vocational school, there probably wouldn’t be any black dancers in the higher grades, and beyond that, none dancing in the classical companies. I mean, whether you are doing sport or singing or dancing, young people need role models, and little black girls doing classical dance don’t have many, certainly not in the UK. So that’s why BB is black and Asian; it is a concentrated dose of role models. Below that, in the school, it is all mixed, but I want the children to see that it is possible to perform if they are black or Asian.

Do you ever get accused of reverse racism?

Yes, I do. People say ‘imagine if it were the other way round and a company barred ethnic minorities from joining. That wouldn’t be allowed.’ The thing is, it is not about barring white dancers, it is simply about concentrating on somebody else. I and three of the dancers are mixed race so we have white parents who are fine with the company’s ethos.

In addition to BB, you have started a ballet school for young children. Are the students there mostly black?

Yes, but not exclusively. We have black kids who come from all over London, and from outside. One even comes from Birmingham for the Associate classes. The thing is, it is a constant circle….if black girls don’t have a ballet school where they can go and be comfortable, they won’t get very far, they won’t be able to audition for Monica Mason or Wayne Eagling so they will never be seen, so they disappear, and the circle starts again. I want to break that circle by giving young black kids the chance to have good training in a comfortable environment, then be able to go on and join mainstream companies.

Pancho collecting the Outstanding Company Award at the 2009 National Dance Awards, Presenters Alissar Caracalla & Emma Manning.
© Dave Morgan.

We sometimes hear that the reason for the lack of black female classical dancers in particular is a cultural thing, that ballet is not part of black culture. Do you agree with that?

No. When I ask parents why they come from so far away to bring their children to our school in Shepherd’s Bush, that surely there are schools closer to them, they always say “yes, there are, but we don’t want our daughter to be the only black face in the class”. There are many little black girls who would like to learn ballet, but they don’t because they think they wouldn’t fit in. If you want to leave your precious 3 year-old somewhere, you want be sure they are ok. They are taught by me and by Cira Robinson, a black dancer, so they see from a young age that things are possible. They come to see the company perform and are amazed and inspired, and want to try out things they’ve seen onstage in class. They see that they could actually go onstage and perform when they are older.

Can you foresee a time in, say, the next decade when there will be more black women in the mainstream classical companies?

Yes, definitely. It is already opening up more now. There are quite a few black students at the Central School, for example. But the ADs of the large companies don’t get the chance to see many black students, so that is one of things we are trying to address with the school. Because black people are a minority group there will never be 50-50 in a company, but I do foresee they will be represented a bit more. Of course, they still have to do the hard work that everyone else does to be accepted into a large company!

You have a school and a company to run. How are you funded?

At the start, I was putting in everything I had, and then my grandmother gave me £2,000 which was a really big help. The money from that fundraiser kept us going for about six months. At that time the dancers only worked on the weekends, so they were each given lunch and £40. Anything extra that we ever made I used to divvy up between everyone. We’ve had some contributions from the Sainsbury Family Trust, and small private donations. Really things didn’t turn around until I met Deborah Bull, who at the time ran ROH2 here at the Opera House. I was put in touch with her by Bonnie Greer, who gave a talk on the lack of black women ballet dancers. Afterwards, I told her what I was doing and she said that I should try to do something here at the Linbury or Clore, and Deborah was the one to talk to. So I emailed her and to my amazement she replied; I’d grown up thinking she was a guru, and here she was replying to me. I went to meet her and she was incredibly supportive. She offered us the use of the studios here at the Opera House on Sundays, free of charge, and I just couldn’t BELIEVE the size of them! So this made a MASSIVE difference; people started coming to take class with us and that is when the Associate programme was born. The ROH also gave us a commissioning grant, which allows us to put on shows here, and pay the dancers a much more reasonable wage.

How about funding today? You were just refused an Arts Council grant…

We had a one-off grant once from them for a tour, but that didn’t include the five nights we did at the Linbury. We had high hopes this time that we might get a grant, but we didn’t, so we have to just move on. There is no point sitting around griping about it; I made a decision to form this company, so I have to get on with it. Of course, we could have done with £100k or whatever it might have been! I’m also worried about the message it may send out to private sponsors…’you haven’t had any AC money in 10 years; what’s wrong with you?’ My main priority is to be able to pay the dancers, because without them we are nothing. That is where most of my pressure comes from.

It must be such a worry, wondering where the money will come from. Do you have any corporate sponsorship?

Well, until last year, we weren’t nearly big enough for any corporate sponsors to be interested in us. We weren’t touring much, and sponsors want their logos all over the country. And ballet is still quite a niche market for them, especially black ballet….so it has been difficult. Of course five nights at the Linbury is quite impressive, but it’s not enough. So at the moment, the majority of our income comes from our Chairman and his family, and some from our Board of Trustees. The Chairman is American so the Board is run in quite an American way, with them doing fund raising. We also have a lot of ‘in kind’ help: the landlord at our home in Marylebone has done us a great deal, MAC gives us makeup, etc. Luckily, our Linbury show sells out so the profit from that keeps us going for another month. When we do somewhere like Cambridge, that doesn’t even give us enough to pay the dancers for a week, but we do it to build an audience. We started performing in Cambridge four years ago to almost no-one, but now we do two nights there, so it’s making financial sense.

So five nights’ sell-out profit only keeps you going for a month? And that is your biggest performance each year… how much does it cost to run the company?

Yes, just a month. It’s hard to put an exact amount because it depends on what we are doing, but on average it is about £20,000 per month… which is very hard to find!

Cira Robinson & Jazmon Voss in Martin Lawrance's Pendulum.
© Bill Cooper. Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window.

Could you tell me a bit about your dancers?

We started with an American dancer who joined us for a while, but he went back to the States. We were desperate for a British male dancer but just couldn’t find anyone of the right standard. We didn’t want to put someone under par onstage because it would fuel the myth of black people not being good at ballet. So I turned to this American and he sent over a friend, Damien Johnson, who we took without audition and crossed our fingers. Luckily he was just what we were looking for and is now the backbone of the company. We had no money so he lived with me and my parents. Actually, a lot of dancers have lived with me and my parents! When we became full-time three years ago we started holding auditions here, and no black people turned up. None. We had loads of Spanish and Italians, but not even one black person, so were forced to look abroad, and America was the logical place. You hold an audition there and 50 black people turn up, and all of a high standard. So that’s how we got Jazmon Voss and Cira. A bit later we were lucky enough to find some excellent British dancers, including Sarah Kundi who came to us from Northern Ballet (Theatre), so now the company is about 50% British and 50% American, and it all fits.

And having good dancers means you are now attracting good choreographers, such as Alston, Oguike, Scarlett, Hampson, Tuckett….quite an impressive list!

Yes, we’ve been so lucky to have those amazing people create works on us. And I’m sure they’re doing it for a lot less pay than usual! Will Tuckett made our first narrative piece (Orpheus) this year for our 10th anniversary, and the dancers really love working with him because he manages to bring out so much from them, things they perhaps didn’t know they had. I also encourage our dancers to choreograph, and recently we had ‘An Afternoon with Ballet Black’ here at the Clore, in which we had students from the school and the company onstage, and it was very successful. They created some great pieces, absorbing influences from the many different types of choreographers we’ve used (20 in the past 10 years!). I also give them the chance to teach at the school; I want them to be part of the whole, and not just ‘you are a performer and that’s it’.

Sarah Kundi & Jazmon Voss in Will Tuckett's Depouillement.
© John Ross.

How do you see the future of Ballet Black? Do you envisage it becoming like Dance Theatre of Harlem or Alvin Ailey?

I can’t see myself running a company of 30 dancers, it’s hard enough with 8! Although I would like to have 10, it would make a massive difference to us. 16 would be even better; it would give choreographers much bigger scope and they could have two casts in case of injury or illness. We need so much; a rehearsal director, an administrator, a nice big building with performance space…. Happily what is happening now is that the critics are coming to see us for our new choreography, and not as a ‘black’ company, and we don’t hear audience members saying ‘well, they were good for black dancers’. What I am working towards is that in the future BB won’t even need to exist; that there will be enough black dancers and role models integrated into the mainstream companies that there wouldn’t be a need for us anymore.

And what would you do if that were the case?

I am not sure… but I’d love to work with animals in my next career!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

DaveM October 6, 2011 at 11:29

Very impressive young woman – and her company do her proud! Looking forward to the Linbury shows in the new year

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Jacqui John October 17, 2011 at 07:45

The journey of Cassa and Ballet Black is awe-inspiring and impressive. I have a 5 year old daughter who attends a ballet school in Redbridge and we are both huge fans of Sarah Kundi and Ballet Black. My only gripe is that we can never get tickets! :-) We, along with friends who are also interested, try to attend as many London performances as we can but always find that the tickets are practically sold out – It will be great when you have access to bigger venues. Keep up the brilliant work!

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