" Black people can’t do ballet "
Cassa Pancho, the British-Trinidadian artistic director of Ballet Black, has heard countless excuses over the years for the lack of black dancers in classical ballet - such as no one wanting to see one black swan in the corps de ballet. So many excuses in fact, that in her third year at the Royal Academy of Dance she made it the subject of her dissertation. "I thought I'd interview four or five black ballerinas and see what they had to say - I couldn't find one," she says. "It was a shock." This sorry state of affairs led her to create Ballet Black, the UK's only classical ballet company for black and Asian dancers, in 2001.
Pancho was driven to distraction by the racist stereotyping she encountered, including "black people can't do ballet"; "black women have big bottoms and feet that are unsuitable for pointe work"; "black dancers in the corps are not aesthetically pleasing". She is not the first person to challenge what sometimes seems to be the last bastion of racism in the art world. Les Ballets Nègres was Europe's first black dance company, performing between 1946 and 1952, while Arthur Mitchell founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969.
Of late the debate has started up again, following revelations about the English National Ballet principal Simone Clarke's membership of the British National Party and her comments on immigration. "In this country either we have freedom of choice and of speech or we don't," says Pancho of the furore. "You cannot sack somebody from their job for their political beliefs." Whatever one may think, the story has at least cast a spotlight on the issue. At the last count, the Royal Ballet had three black and six Asian dancers in their 93-strong company. Of those, only two are principals - Miyako Yoshida and the hugely popular Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, the first black principal in the company, and now patron of Ballet Black. The ENB has seven black or Asian dancers - 11 per cent of the total company.
From an excellent double page article in today’s Independent by Alice Jones. But Cassa Pancho is wrong when she says “You cannot sack somebody from their job for their political beliefs.” Police Officers in England and Wales are barred from belonging to the British National Party, the far right organisation that star dancer Simone Clarke is a member of.
Now, for more on diversity in the performing arts, and downloads of music by the Tunisian/French composer Roland Dyens, visit BBC Proms – a multicultural society?
+ In memory of choreographer Glen Tetley who died on January 26th 2007, aged 80, His ballets included Pierrot Lunaire to Schoenberg's music, Voluntaries to Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani, Field Figures to Stockhausen, and Laborintus to Berio. +
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