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Telling Stories with Ballet Black

Ballet Black’s founder, Cassa Pancho tells James Drury how their Double Bill sees the fulfilment of a near two-decade ambition.

When Ballet Black take to the Barbican stage, the programme is not only A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream, but also the realisation of a long-held dream for founder Cassa Pancho.

Ever since she started the company, she’d wanted international choreographer Cathy Marston to write a ballet for them.

‘I started Ballet Black 17 years ago, and I asked Cathy then to write a ballet, but she was really busy at the time,’ remembers Pancho. ‘I’ve been trying her on and off ever since, and finally in 2016 she had an opening and everything aligned.’

Cambridge and Royal Ballet School-educated Marston was director of Switzerland’s Bern Ballet until 2013 and a former associate artist at the Royal Opera House. Highly sought-after, she’s renowned for her narrative works and strong story-telling.

Selecting a tale that suits Ballet Black is not always a straightforward job, Pancho admits. ‘We’re eight dancers but have no sets because we have to fit on stages from the size of the Barbican’s to the Theatre Royal in Stratford, which is considerably smaller.’

So Marston and dramaturg Edward Kemp had a job on their hands. After much deliberation and debate, Kemp came up with the idea of The Suit and Cathy ‘loved it – it’s simple, has the right amount of characters for a company of our size; and when Cathy told me about it I was convinced straight away,’ says Pancho. ‘One of our dancers is South African and he remembers studying it school, so it feels perfect for us.’

The affecting fable by South African author Can Themba, tells the story of an ordinary couple in a seemingly happy marriage. One day the man goes to work, where he’s told his wife is having an affair. He rushes home to find her in bed with another man, who’s so surprised he jumps out of the window, leaving his suit behind. To punish his wife, the husband insists on treating the suit as a guest, setting a place for it at the dinner table, taking it out for a walk on Sundays and more. His wife begs him to stop the unrelenting psychological torment, but he refuses. Finally, one day he is devastated to return and find her curled up with the suit, dead.

Very theatrical, and with a universal tale of relationships that anyone can relate to, it’s easy to see how Marston and Ballet Black were grabbed by it. Adapting a South African tale felt right for the company, says Pancho. ‘We do a lot of post-show talks, and on our recent tour we were asked why we don’t do black stories. One of our dancers responded that most stories about black people are tragic, they come from tragedy, from slavery, from a bad place and if you told nothing but black stories it might not make for an uplifting evening.

‘There are lots of great stories you could tell from a non-white narrative tradition, but I’ve always tried to tell stories with the company that are of interest to the choreographer. You wouldn’t really ask a Royal Ballet choreographer to tell the story of Malcolm X or the Windrush story, because there are questions of whose lens are we seeing this through.

The Suit is a story about a husband and wife, but it could be any couple anywhere in the world. It has a universal appeal that anyone can relate to.’

Can we expect to see more diverse works in ballet? ‘This is a long-term strategy,’ says Pancho. ‘It’s going to take some time before we see more diversity in the story-telling, but we’re making progress: one of our dancers is from South Africa and he’s making a work based on African themes which will premiere this year.’

The other part of this double bill is Arthur Pita’s glorious A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream – interestingly another first for the company: in 2014 it was the first work he created for the Ballet Black dancers, and its first tutu ballet.

‘Arthur is really well-known for his adaptation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which is very out-there; so when we talked about working together he was really in the mood to do something light and happy and different to that. We played around with a lot of different ideas and he came up with doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but messing it up and changing what happens to the characters.

‘It combines not only music by Eartha Kitt and Barbra Streisand but also Handel. On paper it sounded chaotic,’ laughs Pancho, ‘but Arthur has such a talent and crafted this incredible piece – which was our first tutu ballet even though we’d been going for 10 years.’

Ballet Black Double Bill takes place on 15—17 March in the Theatre

Part of Barbican OpenFest

Photos: Linda Uruchurtu

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