In conversation with Ballet Black

As part of Scottish Ballet's 50th anniversary, we will be giving the world premiere of Helen Pickett's The Crucible at the Edinburgh International Festival. We are delighted that we will be joined by Senior Artist from Ballet Black, Cira Robinson, in the role of Tituba. In this discussion, Cira and Ballet Black Artistic Director Cassa Pancho are in conversation with Christopher Hampson looking at the opportunity created by this new role, and the challenges on and off stage in making the UK ballet world more diverse and representative.

Chris: Cira, we're really excited to welcome you to Scottish Ballet later in the year. 

Cira: I've seen Scottish Ballet and they're beautiful dancers and welcoming people. I'm just ready to dive in and become one!

Chris: So we've already started on The Crucible and we've been working with Helen Pickett. We identified quite quickly that this role of Tituba allows for a dancer of colour to take a central role in a full-length work. We've spoken at length about the lack  of opportunities that there are for that to happen in new works.

Cassa: There are challenges for an Artistic Director who wants to cast in a diverse way, and how to about that in the UK at the moment. The talent is there, but it's burgeoning talent and it's our jobs as Artistic Directors to look after that, protect and develop it at the right speed. This development won't be the same for every artist either, there's not one formula we can follow. That is a job we have to take special care with, so we're not just ticking a box to fulfil certain roles. We're taking care of the individual artist.

Chris: As we know, every single artist takes their own time to develop those skills of character empathy, the confidence of inhabiting a role, and building that role. 

Cira: The vulnerability that you're willing to show is another level of discomfort you have to get over. Not caring who's looking at you but completely being that role, playing it beginning to end.

Chris: I think the exciting part as well is working with Helen, it’s an opportunity. She loves building characters and every single character in The Crucible has a sense of jeopardy with the story, and she highlights that brilliantly. I'm excited to see you working with Helen and going deeper into that character. 

As we’ve said before we're creating a strong, black female character, not normally in the ballet world is that done, if ever!

Cassa: I would say it’s never done outside of Ballet Black repertoire.

Chris: I would agree, and there's a huge responsibility in laying down that foundation stone. As two ballet companies saying 'right, we're going to look at a story that requires this'. It does throw the challenge down to us in the future, for all of us to ensure that we've got fantastic dancers coming up who can take on a role such as this, and hopefully more roles like this. 

Cassa: I think what's been important for us at Ballet Black, is that we have come to know you over many years. But as a Board Member you're also someone that we really trust to be very genuine about your wish to increase diversity in the right way. It’s not just sticking dancers on stage and going ‘there, well done, we’ve achieved diversity’. It's who's making the decisions, who's telling the stories, who's coming to the performances, all the different levels in the ballet world that need to be made more diverse but only the right way, not just shoving people into roles they cannot do or don't want to do. We're waiting with no rush, for people like Cira in our company to retire out of being dancers and be the next directors, rehearsal directors, choreographers etc. 

Chris: That for me is the true test. Something we've spoken about very openly and something I've learned through my interactions with Ballet Black is making sure that the diversity does not stop on stage. It goes beyond the stage into our audiences, into people that engage with ballet as collaborators. That's composers, choreographers, rehearsal directors, artistic directors. There’s a very, very long way to go.

Cassa: You can't stop them from having their actual dance career first and preparing for a role like Tituba, you need time. You need to build up to becoming an artistic director, in the same way you would build up for a role. It's allowing the time, it's staying focused on the goal, but it's also giving the artists room to say ‘well, I thought I wanted to be a teacher but actually I want to be a choreographer or a costume designer’.

Cira Robinson in The Suit by Cathy Marston. Credit Bill Cooper.

Chris: Cira, we obviously have these conversations a lot, but you come from the USA. I wonder if you can talk a bit about the differences or similarities that you've experienced?

Cira: Being here for 11 years, I definitely feel the difference of what I felt 11 years ago with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Growing up in America, being a ballet dancer, I was fortunate enough to have people who look like me in my ballet class and also at Dance Theatre of Harlem I had tonnes of ballerinas to look up to. To have a company full of people of colour is amazing, and it also gave me the confidence and the encouragement to keep going. I was never really told no because I had this confidence as I had people around me. It wasn't until I got to the UK where I did feel as a dark-skinned woman of colour, I felt the difference, as far as me walking into places and being the only one, and really being passionate about classical ballet as well. I think when people looked at me, they thought I should be more of a contemporary dancer just by the outlook of things. Once I took that ballet class, I got looks but people were really interested to know where I'd trained and then they wanted to speak to me. Growing up in America I had lots of mentors and people to look up to, which wasn't really available here. I feel this thing in me to be a role model to the next generations, and representation is important. 

Cassa: Actually, a story I remember you always tell when we're hosting our post-show talks is that when you were 5 you were taken to the theatre and sat on telephone books so you could see as you were so small, and you saw a black ballerina dancing Firebird. 

Cira: Yes, it was Dance Theatre of Harlem. I wasn’t thinking about ballet at the time, I used to get ballerina cakes and Barbies, but that wasn’t really in my head. From what I remember, to see this person onstage who looked like me, I thought 'that's neat'. It wasn't until I found ballet later, that it all made sense. 

Cassa: The first time you said that in one of our post-show talks, I felt really validated for all the reasons for setting up Ballet Black in 2001. To create role models so that little girls can sit in the theatre and either go 'wow that looks like me', or the question isn't even there anymore because it's not unusual. Like the way you reacted to that dancer in Firebird, it not feeling unusual. Eventually we hope for those levels of representation on stage in the UK.