Men Of Two Worlds: Berto Pasuka, Richie Riley And Les Ballets Nègres

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.’ Continue reading

If Love Were All: Noël Coward And Prince George

In 1923, during the West End run of his musical revue London Calling, the 24 year-old Noël Coward encountered another young man, who was to play a significant role in his life. With sexual relations between men remaining a criminal offence in Britain, until 1967, the truth about their relationship could never become public knowledge in either of their lifetimes. The dashing fellow who had caught Coward’s eye was none other than His Royal Highness Prince George, the fourth son of the reigning monarch, King George V.

A voracious bisexual who dabbled in the use of both cocaine and morphine, the Prince was instantly drawn to the urbane playwright, who had already made a name for himself through such credits as The Better Half and The Queen Was in the Parlour. They began a clandestine affair, one which resumed intermittently over the two decades which followed their first meeting.

While Prince George maintained a career in the Royal Navy until 1929, Coward became an international celebrity, his popular songs and light-hearted comic plays like Hay Fever and Easy Virtue, as well as more serious works such as The Vortex, which touched upon the taboo subjects of drug-use and repressed homosexuality, earning him the title ‘The Master,’ from his many adoring fans. At the same time, both men continued to have other lovers.

Coward was linked to several young actors including Louis Hayward and Alan Webb, and Prince George to numerous women including the cabaret star Florence Mills, who died of tuberculosis in 1927 at the age of 32, banking heiress Poppy Baring, and American socialite Kiki Preston, the latter such a heavy drug user that that she was dubbed the ‘girl with the silver syringe.’ Rumours abounded that the prince also fathered an illegitimate son with the daughter of a Canadian coal-merchant. By 1932, Prince George’s indiscretions had caught up with him, forcing his elder brother the Prince of Wales to deal with a blackmail plot hatched against his sibling, by a French architect with whom he was engaged in an affair. Continue reading