The first British black dance company was Ballets Nègres. Its founder, Berto Pasuka was born in Jamaica and learned dancing from the Maroon Negroes, descendants of runaway slaves. He performed native songs and dances for tourists. In 1939, convinced he had to be a dancer, he came to Britain.
In 1946 Pasuka launched an eight week season of Ballet Nègres at a small fringe theatre. The first black dance company in Europe, it included British-born black dancers, a Canadian, three Nigerians, a Trinidadian, a German, a Guyanese, two Jamaicans and a Ghanaian. The five drummers were from Nigeria. The company rapidly won glowing reviews and toured both in Britain and internationally. Pasuka created all four works himself, basing them on Caribbean themes from philosophy to the daily bustle of Market Day.
The company lasted for six years but failed to gain official subsidy. Without subsidy or capital, it was impossible to maintain the dancers and create new works from box office takings alone. The company closed in 1952. Pasuka died in 1963.
Later dance companies
In the last 30 years black dance companies have developed a strong repertoire of work in the UK. Black British dancers have made their name internationally in Ballet Rambert, London Contemporary Dance and a host of other modern and classical, national and internationally renowned dance companies.
Adzido presents classical African tribal dance adapted for stage performance, moulding traditional dances around selected themes and poetry. It was founded by George Dzikunu in 1984. After founding Adzido he toured many African countries researching dance for Adzido’s repertoire. Adzido’s first full length piece was Coming Home, with 28 dancers and musicians telling the story of the son of an African chief who returns home to Africa from the West and discovers he has forgotten his tribal dances. The show was performed at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1988.
Irie! Dance Theatre was founded by Beverley Glean in 1984. Born in the Caribbean, Beverley Glean trained at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance in London and then worked at the Albany Empire as Dance Development Officer. Irie! Dance came out of a project to celebrate Caribbean culture in Deptford in South East London. Irie’s first major production was a reggae production of the Orpheus myth, Orfeo in a Night Town, set in the Caribbean. It opened at The Place in 1989.
Phoenix Dance Company
Phoenix Dance Company was formed in 1981 by Leo Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Villmore James. They all attended Harehills’ Middle School in Leeds, where, unusually, dance was a compulsory subject for boys and girls, taught by Nadine Senior. By 1982 they were performing outside Leeds and the number in the company had risen to five. By 1989 the first female dancers were under contract and in 1990 Phoenix was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award for the most Outstanding Achievement of the Year in Dance.
Darshan Singh Bhuller
London Contemporary Dance Theatre produced many extraordinary male dancers, who thrilled audiences not just with their extraordinary virtuosity but also with the sensitivity of their performances. The last in the great line was Darshan Singh Bhuller. Born of Asian parents, he was brought up in Leeds and learned dancing as part of the school curriculum at Harehills Middle School.
In 1981 he joined London Contemporary Dance Theatre, becoming one of their most exciting dancers and a major choreographer. He is now Artistic Director of Phoenix Dance Company. This study is one of many of Bhuller taken by Anthony Crickmay, the outstanding dance photographer of his generation. Crickmay always perfectly understood the qualities that made a dancer special. He concentrated on Bhuller's extraordinary flexibility, his ability to make the most beautiful sculptural shapes on the ground and in the air, and on his perfect balance and control. The moves in these sessions were devised by Crickmay and Bhuller in the studio. As Bhuller said of Crickmay, 'He thinks like a dancer and choreographer himself, that's why he's so good'.
Ballets Nègres invitation, 1946
Ballets Nègres was the first British black dance company, founded by Jamaican-born Berto Pasuka in 1946. This letter was sent to the press inviting them to the first performances of the company at a small theatre in west London. Traditionally, a management invites critics to review a performance and gives them free seats. Pasuka created most of the ballets himself, basing them on Caribbean themes, from philosophy to the daily bustle of Market Day. The company lasted for six years but failed to gain official subsidy. It was impossible to sustain the company from box office takings alone and it closed in 1952. Pasuka died in 1963. In 2000 the Theatre Museum and Positive Steps dance company invited surviving members of Ballet Nègres to work with young people to recreate Pasuka's ballet Market Day.
Ballets Nègres programme, 1946
In 1946 Berto Pasuka founded Ballet Nègres and launched an eight-week season at a small fringe theatre. The company rapidly won acclaim and glowing reviews, and toured all over Britain and abroad. Pasuka created most works himself, basing them on Caribbean themes, from philosophy to the daily bustle of Market Day. The company closed in 1952. It failed to get official subsidy and it was impossible to sustain the company from box office takings alone. Pasuka died in 1963. In 2000 the Theatre Museum and Positive Steps dance company invited surviving members of Ballet Nègres to recreate the ballet Market Day.
Ballets Nègres programme, 1946
Ballets Nègres programme, Fowler and Company (printer), London, England, 1946
William Louther was the first black dancer to appear regularly with an English dance company. He had worked with Alvin Ailey and was with Martha Graham's company when he came to England to appear with the embryo London Contemporary Dance Theatre in the early 1970s. He was a charismatic personality, and his performances at times reached the level of genius.
This photograph shows Louther performing a swirling jump from Robert Cohan's 1971 work, The Consolation of the Rising Moon, danced to music arranged and played by the great guitarist John Williams. The ballet was an uneasy mix of oriental and Spanish styles, but was dominated by Louther as a priest-like figure. He was dressed in a long, skirt-like garment, which, as so often in contemporary dance, became a central part of the choreography.
Darshan Singh Bhuller workshop
This photograph shows Darshan Singh Bhuller working with boys at Harehills Middle School in his hometown, Leeds. Bhuller shot to fame as a dancer and choreographer with London Contemporary Dance Theatre. His energy, athleticism, and beautiful line (the shape made by the body) made him one of the most exciting performers of the 1980s and 1990s. In 2002 he returned to Leeds to direct Phoenix Dance Theatre.
Harehills is unique in being the only comprehensive school to give birth to a dance company. Dance was part of the normal curriculum and, through their extraordinary teacher Nadine Senior, boys came to see that dance was far from 'cissy'. So many promising boys emerged that Phoenix Dance Company was formed in 1981. It was chance, not design, that, with so many boys coming from African or Asian families, the original members of the company were black. The photograph captures the energy and style that gives Phoenix Dance Theatre, as it is now known, its particular excitement.