Britain’s Queer trailblazers: Berto Pasuka

Illustration by @blccswn

Founder of Britain’s first black ballet company  

Born Wilbert Passerley  in 1911, Jamaica, Berto Pasuka had a groundbreaking life ahead of him. Information about his life is sparse, but his contribution to culture and dance remains an inspiration for many black and queer performers today. 

It was clear to him that he wanted more than a conventional life and his determination was evident from a young age when he decided to follow his own path and became a dancer – instead of a dentist like his parents wanted. That was just the beginning of his remarkable life.  

In Kingston, Jamaica, he studied classical ballet and dance. During his time at school he was soaking up inspiration from many sources, including those outside of the uptight world of European ballet. One often quoted example of such inspiration was when he saw descendants of runaway slaves dancing to rhythmic drums in Kingston. He was enthralled by the vibrant and powerful movement of the dancers and he would draw from this inspiration for years to come.  

While still in Jamaica, he performed traditional songs and dances for tourists and in local shows in Jamaica but in 1939, he made the bold and life changing decision to come to Britain, in the hopes of bringing black dance to new audiences. 

When he arrived, he took another course in dance and choreography at a school in London. His dreams met a stumbling block as war broke out making opportunities more and more scarce. During the war he was able to make a living by dancing in cabaret shows and modelling. Right at the end of the war, his career was starting to take off. He got a role working on a movie called “Men of Two Worlds”.  

Towards the end of the war, Berto established Britain's first black ballet company, Ballet Negres, along with queer Jamaican dancer and artist Richie Riley. The company made its debut in 1946. It brought traditional and contemporary black dance to the UK and Europe with sell-out tours.  

Richie Riley described the form of dance in his history of the company "negro ballet is something vital in choreographic art. As conceived by Berto Pasuka, it is essentially an expression of human emotion in dance form, being the complete antithesis of Russian ballet, with its stereotyped entrechats and point work." 

Their first show on 20th April 1946, was popular with audiences and critics alike. Thanks to this success they were able to move to a larger theatre and expand their team. At their peak, they had 21 dancers, 18 of whom were black and at the time they were the only black ballet company in Europe. 

They continued for 7 years but due to lack of funding – likely due to racism – the company disbanded in 1953. Ticket sales were strong, but at that time, companies relied on grants or sponsorship which they were unable to find.  

The company closed in 1953 and Berto moved to Paris where he continued to perform and to work as an artist model. A striking series of portraits by renowned photographer Angus Mcbean are some of the only images left of Berto today.  

During this time, after the company closed he followed another of his passions, painting. In 1959 he exhibited his work at the 70th exhibition of the Société des artistes indépendants at the Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées. The following year, he exhibited twenty-eight pieces of his work in London in a solo exhibition.  

Pasuka passed away in London in 1963 but he remains a source of inspiration for black and ethnic minority, queer dancers in the UK and Jamaica.  

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