A tribute to Les Ballets Nègres, one of the inspirations behind The Wonder
In the spring of 1946, as London emerged from war, the 20th Century Theatre in Notting Hill staged a debut performance by a troupe of dancers. Two of them hailed from the UK, the others from West Africa, Trinidad, Germany, Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean. For three months they had been rehearsing in a murky cellar in Piccadilly an emotive, looser style of dancing that challenged the strict laws of classical ballet. They danced barefoot, dramatically, to piano scores dominated by five Nigerian drummers. The audience loved them. Subsequent shows sold out. The famous ballerina Tamara Karsavina demanded to be let backstage to meet Berto Pasuka, the artistic director, who one journalist described as ‘the most colourful dance personality since Isadora Duncan’. For the next few years Les Ballets Nègres, Europe’s first black dance company, were an international sensation.
I first heard of Les Ballets Nègres during my own dancing years as part of an African troupe based in Brighton called Mashango. I remember speeding along a motorway in a sweaty van, the drums and costumes in the back, en route to gigs in the Isle of Wight, Wolverhampton, Horsham. I remember stage fright, the spotlights suspended above my head as we danced, the heat and mirrors of dressing rooms, and how much more exciting all this was than sitting in the library studying for my media degree. Dancing was what I loved, yet writing was what I was meant for, which is why when it eventually came to the question of which road to take, I chose to write. And then I did what I thought I wouldn’t do; I wrote a book about dancing.
The Wonder is the rise-and-fall story of a dance troupe in sixties London, inspired by the lives of Alvin Ailey and Vaslav Nijinsky as well as Les Ballets Nègres. The two strongest images in my head as I began writing were of that sweaty Mashango van cruising along the tarmac, and a dark, silent room in which a man lay dead, the door locked from the inside. The Les Ballet Nègres story has always fascinated me. Berto Pasuka (real name Wilbert Passley) arrived in the UK in 1939 from Jamaica with a trunk of his things and a little money. He and fellow Jamaican Richie Riley founded the troupe together, drawing their inspiration from African and Caribbean folk tales and culture, their signature work, ‘Market Day’, a depiction of a Jamaican market. But the company survived only six years, despite its frenzied success, despite one audience in Amsterdam having to spread into the orchestra pit because of high demand, or the enthused patronage of Dame Sybil Thorndike and Viscountess Simon. At the height of their fame the company were performing only in first-class theatres and opera houses, but with no established funding and its reliance on box-office takings, it floundered. Ten years after its final performance, in 1963, Pasuka was mysteriously found dead in his home. According to one account there were suspicions of ‘foul play’, but no concrete explanation has ever been found.
During my research I watched old, grainy Les Ballets Nègres footage (Ballet Black, an Arts Council documentary made in 1986), which seemed vulnerable in its rarity, its lonesome endeavour to capture an important moment in British dance history. The Wonder is an attempt to concoct the drama, mystery, glamour, disappointment and instability of the dance world, at the same time as saluting Les Ballets Nègres, who remain a great source of inspiration to black British dancers today yet have never received the continuing acknowledgement they deserve.
© Diana Evans
To learn more about Les Ballets Nègres visit www.positivestepsassociates.com.