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5 minutes with Ballet Black founder Cassa Pancho: 'Dancers were put off by being the only black face'

The artistic director of the ballet company talks about trying to make classical dance more diverse, their current tour and next year's bill at the Barbican

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Cassa Pancho (L) and Mthuthuzeli November and Cira Robinson in Arthur Pita's Cristaux (R)
© Johan Persson/Bill Cooper

Ballet Black came out of wondering if things might change in classical ballet. If there was a place for dancers of African descent. My dissertation looked into the lack of black women in ballet in the UK, and I found that at that time (1999-2000), there were no professional black British ballerinas in any of the major ballet companies. After talking to a lot of people, it seemed that one of the issues was that people were put off by being the only black face in the room. There's still a little way to go, but there's definitely been an improvement across the board in the landscape of classical ballet.

From our very first show, our audience has always been incredibly diverse. What you put on stage is reflected in your audience. Whether that's just people who are interested in ballet, or want to support a group of black artists, or people who love ballet who want to see something different. We also take it to places that the bigger companies can't actually access through virtue of their size. At the moment, we're at Theatre Royal Stratford East. It's a smaller venue that someone like The Royal Ballet could fit in to.

The reception in smaller places is always positive, enthusiastic and warm. For the dancers, there's always a massive buzz about performing in a venue like the Barbican – there's something about that applause and performing to that number of people that's incredible. At the other end of the scale, when you're in a small theatre, there's a much more intimate feeling between the audience and the dancer. A comment we often get from the audience is that they have never seen ballet so close - seeing the dancers sweat and to hear them breathing.

A ballet we're currently touring features a ballerina in a tutu covered in 2,000 Swarovski crystals. It's a piece called Cristaux by the brilliant Arthur Pita. We also have Christopher Marney's To Begin, Begin, which features a giant piece of blue silk, and Storyville by Christopher Hampson. We're back at the Barbican next March with another triple bill. It means we have the support of the Barbican, in terms of technical and programming, so we can get everything right before we take it out on the road.

My favourite ballet is Romeo and Juliet by Kenneth MacMillan. As a teenager I had a video tape of it and would watch it all the time. The choreography is incredible, but as a little girl, you imagine yourself as Juliet. I remember always wishing I could dance that role.

Ballet Black: Triple Bill runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 8 October before continuing on tour to Newcastle, Leeds and Glasgow.