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An Evening With 'Ballet Black' At The Barbican Theatre

I’ll never forget my first ballet class. I remember feeling prim and proper in my pink tutu and ballet shoes. I’ve always been fascinated by ballet. The way ballerinas move with elegance, poise, and grace, I wanted to be able to move like one too. During my ballet lessons, I would watch myself in the mirror, pretending to be a proper ballerina. However, like most ballerinas of colour I was the only Black girl in my class. It wasn't overt racism but it made me feel unwelcome, so I quit. 


Since then, I’ve always admired ballet from afar. I ponder on what life could be if I stuck at it. Then, a few years ago, I saw several Black ballerinas dancing on a mutual friend’s Instagram story. “What’s this?!” I asked. “It’s Ballet Black, you’d love it!” they responded. I’ve been trying to get tickets to Ballet Black ever since. 


Dancers from Ballet Black perform a piece titled 'If At First'
Photography by ASH from @originalballetblack on Instagram

Ballet Black was founded by Cassa Pancho in 2001 to help boost the representation of Black and Asian ballerinas. Their ethos "Change not Trend," speaks to their intent to go beyond tokenistic inclusion of black dancers. Choreographers, costume designers and other behind the scene workers of colour are also a pivotal part of Ballet Black. They collaborated with British ballet shoe manufacturer, Freed of London, to create skin-tone pointe shoe colours for  Black and Asian ballet dancers.


“What you will see at a Ballet Black show is dancers of different sizes, heights, different hair, different hair texture all of that on stage but all excellent dancers. You can take Ballet because it’s the art form that everyone is taking part in,” Pancho said.


Other initiatives like Pointe Black, a Black-owned ballet school in South London have aimed to fill the gap of the lack of Black ballerinas by creating a safe space for them. These initiatives are affecting change in the audience demographic at ballet shows too, with Black people eager and ready to see more of themselves in the ballet world.


“In this age of chaotic social media and fast, powerful superheroes, where the search for fame and the public nature of heroism dictate who we should consider If At First sets out to pay homage to the quiet heroism,” Laplane said. 

As I walked into the Barbican I saw a sea of Black faces walking towards the venue, which immediately made me feel welcome. There have been countless times when I’ve watched a play or show and been the only Black face in the crowd, a reminder that this space wasn’t made for you. 


The lights dimmed, we were ready for the show to start. The curtains opened and I smiled when I saw Black and Brown faces on the stage. The first piece titled: If At First,  choreographed by Sophie Laplane with lighting design by David Plater, focused on power struggles and the desire for stardom. Throughout the piece, we watch the ballerinas chase the crown symbolising their yearning for fame. 


“In this age of chaotic social media and fast, powerful superheroes, where the search for fame and the public nature of heroism dictate who we should consider If At First sets out to pay homage to the quiet heroism,” Laplane said. 


The second piece: The Waiting Game was choreographed by Mthuthzeli November, with light design by David Plater once again. This piece, starring Ebony Thomas as the main dancer, explores dealing with the different challenges in life and the tiresome waiting game when you long for something great to happen to you. “The Waiting Game was originally inspired by Samuel Beckett. It hoped to explore the absurdity of existence and the passing of time through movement and absurd ideas,” Mthuthuzeli November explained. 


It begins with a door in the middle of the stage. Thomas battles with recurring voices in his head whilst struggling to get through the door. I resonated with this piece and the idea of letting life pass you by whilst being overwhelmed by the demands of everyday life. It ended with a snazzy Jazz number. 


As someone who has never been to the ballet, it was the perfect introduction to the world. The dancers kept me captivated and the pieces were easy enough to follow. I may have not ended up a ballerina myself, but Ballet Black is certainly keeping my interest for it alive.

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