Ballet Black is a wonderful company. But it's a shame on the arts that it still exists

If the Royal Ballet are not recruiting sufficient dancers from ethnic minorities then we need to know about it - and challenge the mainstream to do much better

David Lister
Friday 07 March 2014 17:47 GMT
Ballet black perform A Dream Within a Midsummer Night's Dream
Ballet black perform A Dream Within a Midsummer Night's Dream

Ballet Black has been delighting crowds and critics at the Royal Opera House this week. The company, founded in 2001 to create opportunities for dancers of black and Asian descent, has, according to our critic’s review, “never looked better”. They are good, so good that I want to pay them the ultimate and richly deserved accolade – they should be abolished.

For I have to pinch myself when I see that the Royal Opera House is hosting several nights devoted to a company purely for artists from certain ethnic minorities. Why? If companies such as the Royal Ballet, which is in the same building, are not recruiting sufficient black or Asian dancers, and ignoring their talent, then we need to know about it.

The solution is to hold those national companies to account, not to go off and form a separate and separatist outfit, however brilliant. The arts have to be totally inclusive, or they are worthless. I took a look at Ballet Black’s statement of intent on the company’s own website. It says: “Our ultimate goal is to see a fundamental change in the number of black and Asian dancers in mainstream ballet companies, making Ballet Black wonderfully unnecessary.”

Well, I’d say that after the reviews that this week’s performances achieved, it already is wonderfully unnecessary. If there is evidence that the big companies really are not recruiting talented black and Asian dancers, then it is imperative that we are given the evidence, and that the heads of these mainstream, and indeed national, companies are forced to explain themselves in public. The danger is that Ballet Black, understandably delighted with public and critical reaction, will strive less to make themselves unnecessary.

It’s a temptation that has to be resisted, because the existence of companies such as ballet Black perpetuate a belief that we can categorise the arts by skin colour. That is as shocking as it sounds, yet what is Ballet Black doing if not exactly that?

That people can wander past the Royal Opera House in 2014 and say, “oh look, there’s a performance tonight by a company just for black people” is depressing. The dancers and choreographers of the acclaimed Ballet Black should be in the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet and the many other dance companies in the UK, classical and contemporary. Ballet Black makes no more sense to me than Opera Black or Film Black or Stand-up Black. In virtually every art form there have historically been difficulties for black and Asian artists in entering the mainstream. And it has been shameful. But, as the gradual success of colour-blind casting in mainstream theatre demonstrates, these difficulties can be addressed, not by forming distinct ethnic minority outfits, but by publicly challenging and even shaming the mainstream into recognising that talent has no ethnic boundaries. Cultural separatism, surely, has to be a thing of the past.

If this is the matinee, what happens at the late show?

My rules for audience etiquette on this page last week have provoked suggestions on the subject from readers. I’m particularly intrigued by an email from Christine Arnold. She implores fellow theatregoers thus: “At a matinee, during a show, don’t bring out a pack of sandwiches and share them with your friends. Especially if they are smelly, egg sandwiches.” That sounds bad enough, but she goes on: “Don’t take off your shoes, then your socks, and start picking your toes/feet.” And you thought you had problems with the odd mobile phone going off.

I’m not sure where Ms Arnold sees her plays, but they are clearly venues to avoid. Just reading her email makes me feel I have been to the matinee from hell.

It’s a fabulous place, but the signs are not good for Bath

Travelling to The Independent Bath Literature Festival, I was struck that there is not a single mention of Bath on the M4 between London and the turn-off for Bath. Slough, Swindon, Bristol, even Newport (residents of Newport, please forgive the “even”) are all signalled well in advance, several times. But a city that is one of Britain’s greatest tourist attractions, and a centre of culture, doesn’t rate a mention. Tourists must find that mighty odd. I’m not sure whether it’s a matter for the tourism or highways authorities. But it’s a daft state of affairs.

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