On 20th April 1946, Les Ballets Nègres performed publicly for the first time at the Twentieth-Century Theatre in Westbourne Grove. As the only black ballet company in Europe, their ground-breaking performance received both critical praise and public acclaim. Following their move to the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, the company’s remarkable success made tickets so sought after, that the most prestigious stages in Europe beckoned. Yet in spite of their contemporary popularity, today the company and its founders unjustly warrant little more than a footnote in the history of the arts in Britain. The company even recorded a performance for the BBC’s fledgling national television service, which makes their absence from BBC Four’s current Ballet Season a somewhat surprising omission.
Above: BBC recording of Les Ballets Nègres (1946)
Described as ‘an idealist’ and ‘fascinatingly different,’ the man behind Les Ballets Nègres was Berto Pasuka, proclaimed by the ballet critic of The Stage as, ‘the most colourful dance personality since Isadora Duncan.’ Born Wilbert Passerley in Jamaica in 1919, Pasuka shunned his family’s wishes for him to become a dentist, deciding instead to pursue his own burning desire to dance. While studying classical ballet in Kingston, he would often steal away to watch the beguiling dancing of the Maroon people of Jamaica. The descendants of escapees from slavery, who had set up their own free communities on the island, for the Maroon people these vibrant displays, were instrumental in their fierce preservation of their own cultural identity. After finishing his training Pasuka struggled to find work in Jamaica and left for London in 1939, with the prejudice he faced because of his homosexuality contributing to his decision.
The capital of the former Empire would also draw Richie Riley, a close friend of Pasuka’s who shared his aspirations of becoming a professional dancer. Defying the hopes of his wealthy family that he would study English Literature at Cambridge, Riley instead secured a place at Serafina Astafieva’s dance academy, on the King’s Road in Chelsea; booking himself onto the first ship to leave Jamaica for England after the war, he arrived in January 1946.
Pasuka, who had recently starred in the film Men of Two Worlds with Phyllis Calvert, suggested that Riley should become co-founder of the ballet company he had recently formed, an offer Riley readily accepted. As Riley later remembered, they decided to call the company ‘Les Ballets Nègres – because it was, in every shape and form, ballet in a black idiom.’
Hoping to combine the emotional exhilaration of Maroon dancing with the technical precision and rigour of his own training, Pasuka dismissed the usual point work of classical ballet focusing his choreography instead on energetic movements of the head, neck, shoulders and torso. Of those on stage, who hailed from Africa, Britain, and the Caribbean, it was said that they danced with ‘every fibre of the body and every flicker and flame of the spirit.’ At the heart of the twenty-one strong company stood the magnetic character of Pasuka himself, as principal dancer. Taking to the stage in bare feet and integrating mime, the diverse backgrounds of the performers, most of whom were untrained, were mirrored by the dramatic range of Les Ballets Nègres’ repertoire.
In 1948 The Birmingham Mail described one mesmeric performance in the bomb-ravaged city as, ‘a strangely disturbing emotional experience, vital and compelling, with its blend of the primitive, the passionate, the joyful, the erotic, the sadistic, the fearful and even the horrible.’
Les Ballets Nègres’ critical acclaim and appeal, lay in more than the ability of ballets like Cabaret 1920, Market Day, and De Bride Cry, to be captivating visual spectacles of dancing skill. And it would be wrong to think of works like Nine Nights – which concerned funerary traditions in the Caribbean continued to this day, or Blood – about a pair of lovers who stumble upon a voodoo ceremony and are eventually sacrificed, or Aggrey, as simply documents of cultural history and mythology. Pasuka’s creative imagination challenged and enthralled British audiences, far beyond the mere provision of exotic entertainment fuelled by titillating conceptions of fatalism and impulsive spirituality. They Came – explored the impact of colonialism, while De Prophet, ‘based upon the true story of a religious maniac in Jamaica who tried to fly to heaven’ was reviewed by The Spectator on 18th September 1952.
‘Throughout its four scenes the company sustains the suspense and pathos of the story to a most remarkable degree, working us into a frenzy with each convert, into rejoicing with each miracle, and finally plunging us into despair and pity as the poor demented old prophet — Berto Pasuka — flutters his “wings” for the last time.’
The musical accompaniment to the performances were written by the composer Leonard Salzedo, his arresting scores relying heavily upon the piano and percussion provided by a Nigerian orchestra, The West African Rhythm Brothers. Already well-known prior to their work with Les Ballets Nègres, the band had performed at Piccadilly Circus on VE Day, and were led by Ambrose Campbell, then at the beginning of his career as an influential recording artist.
Above: Ambrose Campbell & The West African Rhythm Brothers – Eleda Awa & Other Songs
After the arrival of the Empire Windrush in June 1948, the Jamaican community in Britain swelled and the popularity of Les Ballets Nègres peaked. For those who witnessed the company’s eventual decline however, the realities of post-War arts funding seemingly played a more decisive role than growing intolerance. Recalling Les Ballets Nègres at the height of their fame, Riley emphasised that ‘at the time, all doors were open to us’, adding that from his point of view the company, ‘never came up against any prejudice in our tours of England.’
Though the company garnered prominent admirers, including George Bernard Shaw, Aneurin Bevan and Dame Sybil Thorndike, who declared Pasuka to be ‘a genius,’ they were a noticeable omission from The Festival of Britain in 1951. Yet the short-sighted decision to discount Les Ballets Nègres on the grounds that the festival was exclusively a celebration of traditional British culture, failed to recognize how such conceptions were already shifting. Nevertheless, at the time the company were far from unique in experiencing severe financial difficulties, the early 1950s being a period when in Riley’s own words, ‘the ballets went to sleep.’
During the Second World War, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) had been set up to promote British arts and culture, eventually becoming the Arts Council of Great Britain. Despite being married to the renowned ballerina Lydia Lopokova, the Council’s first chairman John Maynard Keynes neglected dance, with the notable exception of The Royal Ballet, which as the newly resident company of the Royal Opera House gained access to their generous stipend in 1946. The Council’s budget was subjected to more stringent restrictions following Keynes’s death in the same year.
By 1952, Pasuka, who had invested his life savings in Les Ballets Nègres, was struggling to pay the dancers’ wages. A string of poor promotional decisions by their manager culminated in a show on a Dutch oil-tanker to which only half of the dancers arrived.
Riley abandoned ballet following the dissolution of the company in 1953, and became a painter and sculptor after studying at the Slade School of Fine Art. Dying in 1997 from a long illness, which in a cruel twist had lost the once graceful dancer both his legs, those who remembered Richie Riley recalled how music would awaken an impulse in him to move, even in his wheelchair. Pasuka on the other hand, could not envisage a life in which dance did not take centre stage. Leaving London for France, he immersed himself in Parisian ballet, setting up several new companies and cementing his reputation as a world-class choreographer.
Pasuka returned to London in 1959, and in 1963 he took a leading role in the controversial anti-Catholic play Cock-a-Doodle-Dandy, by the Irish dramatist Seán O’Casey. Later that year Pasuka was found dead in his Paris apartment, rumoured to have been killed by a jealous lover; his mysterious death only hastened Les Ballets Nègres’ retreat into unwarranted obscurity. A brief resurgence of interest in the company was sparked by the 1986 documentary Black Ballet, featuring interviews with the surviving members, including Riley, all of whom remembered Pasuka as an inspiring teacher and, ‘a man of great principle.’ Ahead of his time, and someone for whom posterity has failed to grant due recognition, Berto Pasuka never sought to fly to heaven, he danced.