Entertainment & Arts

Ballet Black opens up dance world

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Media captionBallet Black founder Cassa Pancho and longest-serving dancer Damien Johnson on the appeal of the company and its new production.

Ballet Black was founded by Cassa Pancho, to provide dancers of black and Asian descent a platform for their talent.

This year marks the company's 10th anniversary and a new work has been commissioned for thh landmark. Choreographer Will Tucket has created a semi-narrative ballet inspired by the myth of Orpheus, with music by Stravinsky.

The ensemble - Chantelle Gotobed, Cira Robinson, Damien Johnson, Jade Hale-Christofi, Jazmon Voss, Sarah Kundi, Kanika Carr and Samuel Chung - are led by Chief Ballet master Raymond Chai and artistic director Cassa Pancho.

She explains why her company is not there to segregate, but to create more role models.

When did you create Ballet Black?

Image caption Cassa Pancho hopes to take her company on tour abroad in the near future

I created Ballet Black in 2001 as a way to provide dancers of black and Asian descent with a place where they could come and do ballet. A place where they weren't necessarily the only black face in the room.

Do you think you are encouraging segregation in ballet having a company just for black and Asian dancers?

The important thing in any specialised skill like ballet or sport is that you have someone reflective of you in the profession. I think for now Ballet Black exists to provide role models. What may seem like a way of segregating people is actually there to show a concentrated amount of role models for kids coming up through the ranks. To see professional dancers on stage who look like them, children can see someone who is reflective of them.

What is the ultimate goal for the company?

The goal for Ballet Black ultimately is that it becomes obsolete because you won't need a big concentrated amount of role models. Eventually it will open up and there will be more classical black and Asian dancers across classical ballet.

The Royal Ballet's principal Carlos Acosta is your patron. Will he be making an appearance with the company in the future?

We would love to do something with him. He is incredibly busy, he is a superstar. If he ever had the time we would love to do it but at the moment we are quite happy the ways things are going.

Tell us about the Ballet Black Junior School you started

Image caption Cira Robinson is one of Ballet Black's stars

Our school is in Shepherds Bush [west London] and it is for children between the ages of three and 12. They get to work alongside the company dancers. One of our dancers Cira Robinson comes in with me every Saturday and teaches. The children get to come to the Royal Opera House and watch performances or take workshops with the dancers. It is a really good learning experience for them.

Cira said that when she was younger she used to 'pancake' her shoes - did you do that?

I don't need to pancake my shoes as I don't look black. My father is black and my mother is white but I look more Spanish. My dancers have always had to use brown make-up to pancake their shoes because often you need the shoes to be your own skin colour and they come in pink so that is not an ideal colour for us.

You are celebrating your 10th anniversary by performing a new work by Will Tucket?

We are performing a new piece called Orpheus. It is our first ever story ballet and we are really excited about it. The whole company are included and it is the first time the dancers have really had to act so it is a big challenge for us. So far it has been going well.

Does the company tour?

We have toured around the UK and this year we are going to a lot more venues. We haven't been outside the country yet but we do hope to go overseas over the next couple of years.

The ballet audience in general is white middle class. How can you encourage other sections of society to come and watch ballet?

I think if you come to one of our shows the audience is very mixed and in some places like the Hackney Empire and the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham, the audience has been almost entirely black. If you see Alvin Ailey in this country the audience is predominately black. As long as we keep putting on work that is of interest to people from all different backgrounds, not just black but everybody, then the audience will slowly begin to change.

When you were growing up which dancers did you admire?

I loved Deborah Bull, Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta so it is very exciting that he is now our patron.

In the future would you like to have collaborations with other choreographers?

We definitely want to do collaborations with all sorts of choreographers in the future. I don't know who any of them would be yet. We are always interested in hearing from anyone. So far we've worked with lots of different people from the ballet world to the hip-hop world so we are really open for anything.

What would you say to young boys and girls who aspire to dance?

I would say it is difficult to undertake something like ballet without family support, but if you really are passionate about it then keep going. You may be the only boy or the only black or the only Asian person, but you may be paving the way for someone to come after you.

Cassa Pancho was talking to BBC News reporter Claudia Redmond.

Ballet Black are performing at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio Theatre.

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