Insight evening: Ballet Black, Clore Studio @ ROH – reviewed on 16th February
11 years after the company's creation by Cassa Pancho, Ballet Black had its first insight evening at the Royal Opera House. Choreographer Christopher Hampson rehearsed dancers in his new ballet, Storyville, a narrative work set in the title red-light district of New Orleans, which was shut down in 1917.
He described New Orleans’ “rich and ethnically diverse past in which it had been pulled and exploited” and his decision to use the city’s personality in creating the ballet’s main character, Nola (short for New Orleans, Louisiana). Hampson also highlighted the inspiration he took from choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, with Storyville following the same rags to riches to rags story as ballet Manon.
Hampson rehearsed the opening scene, to music entitled 'Lost in the stars', where Nola (Cira Robinson) bleakly wanders around and stares at her surroundings. He encouraged Robinson not to fix her expression, but make sure it remained variable and believable. In a difficult lift, he suggested the men catch Robinson at the last moment, to give a feeling of excitement and danger.
We then moved onto a duet between Robinson and Damien Johnson, in which the lead character faces a difficult dilemma between love and money. With Nola both passionately grabbing and contrastingly attempting to escape her lover’s clutches, the pas de deux beautifully expresses the character's desire both to stay in love and to be free from her feelings.
Pancho then sat down with Hampson, Robinson and Kundi to discuss the company and its current programme of work. Pancho set up Ballet Black after writing her college dissertation on the lack of black dancers in British ballet. Her vision was to provide black dancer role models while they are under-represented in larger ballet companies. But she described how Ballet Black has evolved into something more than that, where the focus is on its new choreographic works rather than the colour of the dancers.
Pancho stated: “It feels like we have so much to do... we haven't arrived yet”. There is still a major lack of black ballet dancers in the UK, especially women. “The situation is changing but very slowly. There are more black students but it takes a long time to train a dancer”.
The company struggles at times because of its small size and lack of regular money. Pancho described how finances were a constant worry although having private rather than public funding allows them to follow their own artistic vision. With only eight company dancers, there is no one to cover roles in case of illness of injury, but the small number of dancers does mean they work intimately with choreographers. The company's regular studio in Marylebone is so small that everyone even eats lunch together. When Hampson was last working with them, he used rest breaks to teach dancers how to knit!
Pancho is proud that Ballet Black has been able to collaborate with so many talented choreographers. Hampson enjoys working with the company but he has been so busy with other projects that he had to create Storyville last autumn. The time between then and now has, however, been beneficial as he has gained a sense of perspective on the piece and dancers have had the chance to settle into their roles.
Pancho considered her vision for the future of the company. “Our end goal is to not be necessary, but for now we want to keep making ballets, improve and show everyone what Ballet Black dancers are capable of.”