Then or Now Photo credit: Bill Cooper

Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black makes North American debut

By Olivia Barret, Editorial Associate

Tuesday 3 October 2023

In the dimly lit Babs Asper Theatre at the National Arts Centre in downtown Ottawa, six spotlights illuminated the eight dancers on stage. Hundreds of attendees sat excitedly in anticipation of the first movement. From the first dancer standing up, the audience was hooked.

A mix of music and poetry played as the dancers begun Then or Now, the first of two ballets in Pioneers. A tribute to Adrienne Rich, Then or Now uses the poetry of Rich to explore the senses of home and belonging, and the second, honouring the life of the influence and turbulent Nina Simone, Nina: By Whatever Means.

Ballet Black’s two-night stay at the NAC from October 3-4 was the dance company’s first performance in North America. In a post-show chat, owner and CEO of the dance company, Cassa Pancho said she thinks this could be the future of the ballet company’s touring.

Both ballets showcased these influential women instead of traditional ballets, like Swan Lake. This is part of Pancho’s vision for creating and telling diverse stories with diverse dancers.

Ballet Black provides a platform for Black and Asian artists and dancers and has been challenging the dance landscape since it came on the scene in 2001. Pancho said when they started advocating for and making pointe shoes and tights in a wider range of skin tones to choose from for racially diverse dancers, there was pushback. This did not stop Pancho as she prioritizes creating space for these dancers. She said seeing more skin tone options for pointe shoes and tights says, “there is a space for you.”

Despite having few dancers on stage for most of the performance of Then or Now, it never felt empty as dancers performed a series of solos, duets and group numbers. The dancers moved seamlessly across the stage as one female and one male speaker narrated a story about love, namely sending love. The slow and calculated movements told the story of the “we” versus the “I”, telling the story of love in a community.

The passionate and intricate nature of Then or Now, choreographed by William Tuckett, came through in each solo, each duet and each group ensemble to keep the audience captivated. Their eyes were guided across the stage, following every movement of every dancer.

Then or Now Photo credit: Olivia Barrett
Nina By Whatever Means Photo credit: Bill Cooper

Nina: By Whatever Means recaptured the audience within seconds of beginning after intermission. Starting with just a microphone, a piano and two prop walls on stage, Nina wasted no time showing it was a traditional ballet.

Nina was created as a love letter to the life of Nina Simone by choreographer Mthuthuzeli November. Inspired by her art and activism, November takes the audience on an elaborate and moving journey through the highs and lows of Simone’s life.

Through a mix of classical, jazz and gospel numbers, emotion was at the forefront of every dance. Through each movement, the audience felt every emotion, from love to despair and from joy to sadness.  

With help from detailed sets and the colourful lights and costumes, the dancers brought this story to life. Their gracefulness and intriguing music consumed the audience as their eyes never left the stage; they followed Nina through each number.

Filled with beautiful music, seemingly effortless dancing and stories that open the hearts of the audience, the two ballets filled the theatre for both nights of its North American debut. Ballet Black’s exceptional storytelling draws in audiences of varying backgrounds, appealing to any and all who want to go to a ballet.

Nina By Whatever Means Photo credit: Olivia Barrett

Gallery photo credits: Bill Cooper