The 20th anniversary of Ballet Black is celebrated by a double bill that is, in many ways, a summation of the company’s difficult and inspirational journey. Vocal text is key to both works and in Say it Loud a dancer’s recorded voiceover says that both the fascination and challenge of performing the company’s repertoire is that “no two ballets are the same”. Given that Ballet Black has commissioned over 50 ballets by 37 choreographers it is a bold claim but, on the evidence of this latest pair, not a fanciful one.

Ebony Thomas, Isabela Coracy, Cira Robinson and Alexander Fadayrio in Say It Loud
© ROH | Bill Cooper

The opening work is an intimate corporate autobiography, created in seven chapters to represent different facets of the Ballet Black journey. To begin with, recorded voiceovers reflect actual disparaging and offensive messages on social media (from the ridiculous – “there’s no Ballet White” – to the absurd, suggesting that black dancers performing ballet is cultural appropriation)! I have overheard similar statements made in complete seriousness.     

It seemed especially appropriate that Say it Loud should have been created by Ballet Black’s founder and director, Cassa Pancho, albeit in combination with her dancers and also with Charlotte Broom, the company’s rehearsal director. Despite being the product of eleven choreographers there were no joins to be seen other than in the deliberate transitions between the sections, reflecting various aspects of the company’s distinctive character (including its London base, calypso, cabaret, eclectic music and – most importantly – that diverse repertoire). Another bonus in this work is that all eight of the company dancers have a chance to shine in performances that truly reflect the collaborative nature of the ensemble.    

Sayaka Ichikawa, Cira Robinson and Isabela Coracy in Say It Loud
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Two special attributes shone through the work: firstly, the emphasis on smiling through adversity was ever-present in humorous asides, particularly in the expressive delivery of Sayaka Ichikawa and Isabela Coracy; and also in the all-embracing importance of classical ballet to underpin the company’s modern approach, as evidenced in a beautifully nuanced pas de deux for Cira Robinson and José Alves. When Pancho started Ballet Black in 2001 it was to perform her own ballets but the stresses of running a company, fundraising and teaching (a side of the company that is often understated) meant that her choreographic ambition had to be put aside. On the evidence of her contribution to Say it Loud, she should pick it up again.

If Say it Loud presented a universal approach to illustrating the history of the company with, if anything, a bias to its West Indian roots (Pancho is Trinidadian), Black Sun brought the more recent South African focus to the fore. Hitherto this has largely been presented through the choreography of company member, Mthuthuzeli November (Ingoma, The Waiting Game) but – although November is prominent in the work – it was directed and choreographed by another South African, Gregory Maqoma.

Ballet Black in Black Sun
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Where Say it Loud is very much of the tangible world in summarising Ballet Black’s journey, Black Sun is an intensely spiritual work that draws inspiration and energy from ancestral legacy and the impact of the sun and the moon on life forces. Natalie Pryce’s costumes - gorgeous gold and black tunics for the men and an extraordinary embroidered leotard for Robinson – and Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante’s music added significantly to the work’s richness.  Led by November’s singing and drumming, the whole ensemble becomes its own orchestra of percussion and voice in a pulsating and memorable finale.

Ballet Black is known for breaking barriers and November takes down another taboo by being the first dancer in my experience to wear spectacles on stage (other than when the role calls for it as part of the costume design, such as in Jerome Robbins’ The Concert). Although not departing from my earlier observation about the togetherness of the ensemble, there is also no doubting the star quality of Robinson (a mainstay for the company since she arrived from the USA, in 2008) and her extraordinary versatility is well-evidenced here in the contrast between the aforementioned classical pas de deux in Say it Loud and her trembling, visceral, barefoot solo as the Moon Goddess in Black Sun. Robinson will retire from the company in December to become director of Yorkshire Ballet Seminars and she will be impossible to replace. However, companies grow in different ways and Coracy and Ichikawa are themselves remarkable and expressive performers with Rosanna Lindsey another bright prospect for the future.

Isabela Coracy in Black Sun
© ROH | Bill Cooper

It is unfortunate that while so much good work has been done in the past 20 years, Pancho’s mission to make Black, Brown and Asian dancers’ commonplace in ballet companies is still far from achieved. At the beginning, she thought the company would only last for five years; I suspect that it has many more years to run and on the evidence of this celebratory programme it remains a fascinating prospect.