Cassa Pancho is the founder & Artistic Director of Ballet Black. Upon her graduation in 2001, she gained a degree in classical ballet where her journey to found Ballet Black began, produced with the aim to provide role models for young, aspiring black and Asian dancers to feel empowered irrespective of the discrimination black ballerinas continue to experience worldwide.
Pioneers by Black Ballet, Co-commissioned & performed at the Barbican Centre is a time travelling storytelling, adventure of dance, poetry, jazz, music, passion, magic and aspiration. Featuring nine breath-taking dancers named: Jose Alves, Sayaka Ichikawa, Isabela Coracy,Mthuthuzeli November, Ebony Thomas, Alexander Fadayiro, Helga Paris-Morales, Taraja Hudson and Rosanna Lindsey.
William Tuckett, choreographer of the first section of the ‘Then Or Now, takes the audience Into an adventure of love, war, connection and human experiences. The work features poetry by Adrienne Rich (1929-2012), directed by Fiona L Bennett, with poetry recordings from Hafsah Bashir, Natasha Gordon & Michael Shaeffer. The costume designer was by Yukiko Tsukamoto. The concept of using poems was distinctive, meaningful and enchanting. The themes explored were attachment, love, hope and the journey of humanity. During this set, we symbolically see character building, the symbolic passing objects to reflect connection and warmth in an abstract way and expressed through grandiose ballet movements of fluidity, subtle gestures, soft lifts and poetical turns.
The second half features Mthuthuzeli November’s Nina: By Whatever Means. This work embarks on storytelling the life journey of Nina Simone. Each dance piece demonstrates Nina’s zest for life, her influential messages, her spiritual nature and sound – risen from her powerful statements in the past such as; ‘An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times‘. During the beautiful melodic set of her track ‘Sinnerman’ we are exposed to how Nina worked all her life to become a black classical pianist, growing into a beautiful woman with ambition, life and depth. It was evident whilst watching that the aim of retelling Nina Simone was not to play her greatest hits but to show her fight for success, passion and reflect how she set herself for us the right way to be artists.
It was magnifying to re-live Nina Simone showcasing her talent live in this piece of work, especially due to the impact that was well portrayed choreographically, as it foretold the feel her music had, her breath and attitude, as well as her struggles, battles and turmoil she faced, where the rest of the dancers became her inner demons, as well as her inner powers, which was moving to see.
Starting off with Baby Nina, the aim is clear that her story is to be told choreographically and not show the legacy of her life musically. Telling her story & her life journey from being young and innocent, unexpecting of non-stop worldly attacks for becoming a conscious black musician and soulful artist for humanity. The theme being loss and power, due to how black lives are forced to lose their innocence but restored again by finding and fighting back with power.
The Ballerina ‘Isabela Coracy’ who played Nina Simone quoted ‘Every night is an investigation to play Nina simone to know who she truly was, there are loads of ballets to learn and therefore, she is still discovering how to capture the details of Nina Simone through dance to reflect her sense of power correctly, especially when listening to her song ‘Sinnerman’ what it represents and the incredible burning love she had for humanity.
Ballet Black is a safe space that evidently reopens eyes to know what it means to be an artist and acknowledge non-discrimination as a top principal, where you can think about being an artist to embark on the notion that aims to continue to normalise freedom, diversity, empowerment and love within society.
NINA: By Whatever Means: Co-commissioned by the Barbican.
Choreography: Mthuthuzeli November
Lighting: David Plater
Costume design: Jessica Cabassa
Composers: Mandisi Dyantyis, Mthuthuzeli November & Nina Simone (1954-2002) Featuring the
voices of the Zolani Youth Choir