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