Good foot: Black ballet at the Royal Opera House

Britain's only black ballet company is taking to the stage of the Royal Opera House. But more doors need to open in the classical dance world, its founder tells Alice Jones
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The Independent Culture

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.

"A lot more is being done now to encourage kids from ethnic minorities into ballet," says Pancho. "Ten or 15 years ago there wasn't anything being done which is why now in professional companies you don't really see any, or many," says Pancho. "Some of it is racism. Sometimes, though, if you are a teacher who has a black student who is good, you may feel that you're doing them a disservice by telling them to follow ballet because they might not get a job."

Ballet Black has been a labour of love for Pancho. In 2001 she began with four part-time dancers ("one in the States, one in Spain, one in Dorset and one in Never-Never Land - dancing in Peter Pan") and costumes made by her mother. The dancers worked for travel expenses, paid for out of Pancho's earnings from her day job as a receptionist, and rehearsed in the evenings and at weekends.

Most of Ballet Black's money comes from private donors; in March 2004 the company achieved Registered Charity status - news greeted by Pancho on her blog at the time with the tongue-in-cheek plea, "We black, need money, send now!". But the Arts Council has deemed the company ineligible for funding. "They feel they have funded enough classical ballet. There's such a small pot for dance anyway and everybody wants it."

The company's lucky break came in 2002 when Pancho attended a talk at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio about the lack of black artists in ballet and opera as part of Black History Month. There she met the chair of the panel, Bonnie Greer, who set up a meeting between Pancho and Deborah Bull, the former principal dancer and creative director of ROH2. Bull offered Ballet Black the use of dance studios at Covent Garden and threw in a bag of her old pointe shoes for good measure. Over time, the unofficial helping hand became official sponsorship and in November 2005 Ballet Black performed a triple bill of works by Antonia Franceschi, Stephen Sheriff and Irek Mukhamedov, whose work Duael Fuel was inspired by the music of Duke Ellington, at the Linbury.

The company now has six dancers - three from America, one Brazilian, one Korean and, their latest recruit, a British graduate of the Royal Ballet School, Chantelle Gotobed. "A lot of people have criticised us for not using British dancers but it's very difficult to find six very talented classical ballet dancers who aren't already working." Pancho also runs a ballet school for three- to eight-year-olds. "In an ideal world I would have started the school, brought these kids up through it and trained them to go into vocational schools but that will take a very long time - 15 years," says Pancho. "I wanted to provide role models for those little kids to see right now."

The company begins a four-night run at the Royal Opera House tomorrow. The programme includes a revival of Shift, Trip, Catch by Franceschi, Taniec by the company ballet-master Raymond Chai, and Hinterland, a new work set to Shostakovich by the Royal Ballet's Liam Scarlett. "We're building a repertoire," says Pancho. "As a small company we can't really do a Giselle with six dancers."

She hopes the run will be the start of bigger things for Ballet Black and would like to see the company grow to 10 dancers. "There is a definite need for what we do. In the UK we're unique. We're in it for the long haul."

Tomorrow to 3 Feb, Linbury Studio, ROH, London WC1 (020-7304 4000;