The first British black dance company was Ballets Nègres. 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 national and internationally renowned dance companies both modern and classical.
Darshan Singh Bhuller, photograph by Anthony Crickmay, late 20th century
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, typed letter, London, England, 1946. Museum no. TM 1967/A/40
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, Fowler and Company (printer), 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, Fowler and Company (printer), London, England, 1946
William Louther, photograph by Anthony Crickmay, London, United Kingdom, 1971
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, photograph by Anthony Crickmay, mid 20th century
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.