May 27, 2020
Ballet Black is well established on the ballet scene, in fact they’re now celebrating their 18th season and the company is back in the spotlight. On May 27 there was a morning interview featuring director, Cassa Pancho and senior artist, Cira Robinson, on the prestigious BBC Radio 4, Women’s Hour programme and in the evening, BBC 4’s Danceworks series (part of BBC Arts 2020 Dance Season) showcased Ballet Black and Mthuthuzeli November’s new work The Waiting Game.
The renewed interest may well have been sparked by the now famous ballet duet hosted by rapper Stormzy on the Glastonbury stage in 2019 that introduced the documentary. It was seen live by hundreds of thousands and viewed by millions: figures of fairy-tale magnitude for most ballet companies. November who danced the duet with Cira Robinson, declared the event, “the best moment of my life so far.” At 27 years-old, he’s a well-grounded young man embarking on his second commission for Ballet Black. He noted the importance of a company able to offer a new way of seeing ballet and a platform to tell black stories.
The documentary, directed by Andy Dunn, finds an astute balance between discussing the persistent residue of racism in society and creating dance, by focusing on the company, a champion of diversity, as they rehearse a new ballet.
November, now a senior artist, gives a lucid account of the challenges in taking Beckett’s, Waiting for Godot, and translating the existential absurdity into movement. The camera follows him into the rehearsal room where the dancers practice the moves and try out props, then tracks the choreographer as he sources ideas and moulds them into the work.
Pondering the idea of waiting for something that will not happen, November observes the staccato movement of the second hand on the kitchen clock. On his journey home he clocks the dance rhythm of the wheels on the underground train. The percussive clicks in the Xhosa language, his mother tongue, inspire him to write part of the score. “Our voices are music,” he says as he persuades the dancers to go vocal.
The rehearsal atmosphere: concentrated, respectful and good humoured, dispels a whole raft of prejudices about race and ballet in one fell swoop. The camera also takes us to the junior school where Cassa Pancho is teaching excited and enthusiastic groups of youngsters blissfully unaware that their ethnically mixed ballet studio is a rarity in the UK.
Over the years, documentaries on ballet are improving thanks to a better educated and more enlightened approach and this half hour serves the profession very well indeed. Ballet Black has a world class ambassador in Mthuthuzeli November who proves his talents go well beyond his dance performances. With the easing of the lockdown in sight, I look forward to seeing this intrepid company back on the boards.
Ballet Black: The Waiting Game is now available on BBC iPlayer (UK only).