Ballet Black: Defying Historical Typecasting

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Ballet Black: Defying Historical Typecasting
Deborah Bell & Ellen Carpenter | 2019 - January to March | United Kingdom
The Dance Company Ballet Black demonstrates black dancers’ talent for ballet. Deborah Bell and Ellen Carpenter reflect on inclusion and the arts.

Ballet Black is a British based ensemble who perform modern and classical ballet. Formed in 2001 by Cassa Pancho M.B.E., who is of Trinidadian heritage and trained at the Royal Academy of Dance, Ballet Black has actress Thandie Newton and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah O.B.E as patrons. 

It is a joy – yet unfortunately still a novelty – to see a ballet company composed of people of colour – especially as it was not long ago that people of African heritage were considered too physically unrefined to grasp the subtleties of this art. Jazz, Disco and Belt ’em Out Musicals, yes. Ballet, no. 

In reality young black dancers face questions of opportunity, family income and confidence rather than ones of talent, and Ballet Black tries to challenge the ongoing historical cycle of racial typecasting in dance by providing training and performance opportunities in both classical and modern ballet.   

And it is undoubtedly a winning formula. At a performance at Stratford East Theatre, their sets consisted of a surreal retelling of A Midsummer’s Night Dream called A dream within a Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Suit, based on a 1962 novel by the South African author Can Themba. The dancers hailed from Brazil, Japan, South Africa, and America as well as London. Elegant, toned, and graceful, it is not surprising that these performers have become firm favourites at high-profile mainstream favourite venues like the Barbican, where audiences of all social backgrounds can enjoy their sets. 

Not just great performers, Black Ballet are also responsible for pushing for the manufacture for the first time in British history of brown and bronze ballet pointe shoes for dancers of African, Mixed Race and Asian heritage, with the first pairs designed in partnership with pointe gurus Freed of London in 2018. This is great news for Ballet Black. It means no more ‘pancaking’- airbrushing pink shoes with dark foundation make-up to match their skin tones. 
  
Equally importantly it can help dancers of all backgrounds to feel that ballet has the potential to become more inclusive. 

Yet there is still work to be done if we wish to see greater diversity in ballet. Because they are specially created for a minority of dancers, pointe shoes are still very expensive to produce. You can donate to the Pointe Shoe Appeal at https://balletblack.co.uk/support-us/ or sign up as a friend of the company. 

Annual membership is £40 for adults and £15 for under 17’s. You can also follow Ballet Black on Twitter@BalletBlack