March 29, 2010 / 2:42 PM / in 8 years

London's Ballet Black wants to take success abroad

LONDON (Reuters) - After years of sell out performances and innovative choreography, Britain’s Ballet Black is considering a debut on the international stage.

Founded by Cassa Pancho in 2001 after graduating from London’s Royal Academy of Dance, Ballet Black sprang out of Pancho’s efforts to find black ballet dancers to interview for her dissertation.

Now with six classically trained dancers of black and Asian descent, Ballet Black’s performances have become a top ticket for London culture vultures and chief ballet master Raymond Chai thinks it’s time to have a crack at the international stage.

“I think Ballet Black has proven itself. We usually sell out wherever we perform... (and) we would love to do international tours,” he told Reuters.

He said one of the aims of Ballet Black’s founder -- whose parents were British and Trinidadian -- was to inspire young black or Asian dancers to believe they can do classical ballet.

“It is a very old misconception that black dancers cannot do ballet or do not have the body for ballet. Ballet Black has proven that is wrong,” Chai said.

The path has not always been easy and the company still faces funding hurdles despite its popularity. Early help came from Deborah Bull, who was then the creative director of Royal Opera’s contemporary arm ROH2 and saw Ballet Black’s potential.

Now Bull is creative director of the Royal Opera House.

In Britain, the Royal Ballet is relatively diverse, with nearly 100 dancers of 21 different nationalities, the opera house press office said.

Cuban Carlos Acosta is one of the ballet world’s biggest black stars and he is joined at the Royal Ballet by seven East Asian female and male dancers as well as Japanese guest principal Miyako Yoshida.

Ballet Black is not big enough to perform many classical pieces such as “Swan Lake”. But Chai, who is Malaysian with a Chinese background, said Ballet Black’s energy and fresh choreography attracts a sophisticated audience in London.

“My view to work with this company is about more creative freedom,” he said.

Chai also lectures and teaches ballet classes, which attract professionals, absolute beginners, white, black, Asian, young and old.

“How would you inspire young black or Asian dancers, male or female? They may think ‘oh, it seems there is not really a chance for me to become a ballet dancer. I should do something else. I should do contemporary’. Hopefully, this will change,” Chai said.

He said funding remains the main problem. The key source of income is selling tickets. But it is always tough for the company to support dancers, buy costumes, pay for physiotherapy, shoes and studio hire.

“She (Pancho) would like to expand but it always comes (down) to funding,” Chai said.

Reporting by Ikuko Kurahone, editing by Paul Casciato

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