Kiki's Woman of the Month is the incredible Cassa Pancho, the founder and CEO of Ballet Black. Ballet Black is a British ballet company; it was founded in 2001 as a response to the lack of professional Black and Asian ballet dancers in the UK. The Company was to provide dancers and students of black and Asian descent with inspiring opportunities in classical ballet. Based in Marylebone, London, Ballet Black are a touring company with 8 dancers and an extensive repertoire of specially commissioned choreography from established and emerging choreographers.
Can you tell us about what inspired you to start Ballet Black?
I started Ballet Black because I wanted to see a change in the look of classical ballet in the UK – not the technique or artistry, but the landscape. When I founded the Company in 2001, British ballet was a very pale place, with only a few Black male dancers but no women working professionally. I am mixed race, British and Trinidadian, so grew up in a very diverse family, and always found it strange that ballet didn’t embrace all colours. That is changing now, but BB has been around for 20 years, and it’s only in the past 18 months that mainstream ballet is acknowledging the issues around diversity, equity and inclusivity in ballet in a meaningful way.
What have you found to be the biggest challenges?
There are almost too many to mention! In the beginning, It was very difficult to be taken seriously, and to find regular funding. At each stage of BB’s growth, new challenges have presented themselves. When we were a few years old, it would have been a dream to have the touring circuit and funding that we do now, but what I’ve learned over the years is that the challenges in running a ballet are largely universal, it’s just the scale that changes.
I think keeping Ballet Black going, growing and developing has to be the biggest achievement so far. I’m also very happy about our collaboration with Freed and BB Senior Artist, Cira Robinson, to create pointe shoes and tights in Brown and Bronze so that dancers around the world can buy pointe shoes in their preferred colour. It’s also extremely satisfying to see the students at our Junior School master each level and develop into people who love and appreciate the arts.
How do you work to raise awareness and champion diversity within the arts?
We don’t work at it. We live and breathe it every day.
What 3 words would you use to describe yourself?
Silly, serious, blunt
What makes you feel powerful?
Achieving something, whether that’s completing a difficult funding bid, working on a ballet until it’s stage ready or helping a three-year-old at our School learn how to skip, but it is also a short-lived feeling because I always ask: what now?
What advice could you give to aspiring young dancers/entrepreneurs?
To dancers I would say you can always learn, no matter how good you are or how successful your career is. To entrepreneurs I would say be as clear about what you want to do and why, as possible, and remember that showing up every day is the key: on the great days, the bad days and the boring ones in between, you need to show up to make things happen.
What/who has inspired you throughout your career?
I’m inspired by lots of different people, particularly the BB dancers and office team who come from all over the world and who are not only great artists and humans, but really funny and creative people, too. We all spend a lot of time together which can sometimes be a challenge, but when adversity seems insurmountable, these are the people I want around me.
How have you dealt with the challenges of the last year?
We’ve always been adaptable because of our small size (compared to the rest of the ballet world). Although the pandemic and the latest wave of Black Lives Matter was unlike anything we’d ever experienced, we took it in our stride and found ways to keep the Company going by making films, offering online classes to people stuck at home, free resources to organisations who truly wanted to think about what equity meant for them, and made sure our Junior School kids had some semblance of normality by setting up our School over Zoom.
What does the future hold for you and Ballet Black?
Hopefully a return to live touring, which might be my first love – I have enjoyed learning about what digital art can do for us and our audience, and hope it continues, but it would be wonderful to be back in front of a live audience again and give equal weight to both.
Kiki’s motto is Elevate the Everyday and she is a big believer in doing small things to maintain positivity and instil confidence, what do you to cheer yourself up in the day to day?
I like to laugh with Team BB – I believe we should take our work seriously, but not ourselves, so it’s a small thing but when we can laugh in the studio, the mood of the entire Company is elevated.