At the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, Garreth van Niekerk caught up with 22-year-old Mthuthuzeli November, one of the most extraordinary young South African ballet dancers right now
He’s been hailed as the dancer of this generation and the hero of Zolani township in Ashton in the Western Cape. Now, four years since his first performance at the National Arts Festival, ballet dancer Mthuthuzeli November is the talk of the fest all over again.
Appearing in Cape Dance Company’s double bill, A Thousand Shepherds, it was his solo – an extended version of Convivencia, set to new music – that really got tongues wagging. His movements are sharp and then soft, fluid and then hard, and very much part of the new ballet developing around the world.
The piece is a tribute, he said afterwards, to the people who “contributed to making everything happening now possible”.
He specifically thanked the Dance for All nongovernmental outreach programme in Montagu for training him, and the Cape Academy of Performing Arts, from which he recently graduated. He also thanked his little brother Siphe for inspiring him.
It’s this tight network of support, Mthuthuzeli told me this week, that propelled his stratospheric career to the international arena, landing him in London most recently, where he is a first-year apprentice in an English ballet company called Ballet Black – created to correct the white skew in mainstream ballet companies.
What’s it like to be back home?
It’s really great. When I come back home, I get to give back to the people who have seen me grow. I also get to dance with people I haven’t seen in a long time, and see my family, who I’ve missed a lot.
Ballet still gets smack talk from contemporary dancers, who call it a colonial import
It really depends how much you want to do it. Ballet didn’t originate in Africa and, because of that, it isn’t treated as an African art. It has taken a long time to develop here, so when someone with a different skin colour does it, it becomes a strange thing for people to understand. But if you have the drive to take on the art, it doesn’t matter what race you are or where you come from.
Ballet seems far removed from the life you came from
At first, I didn’t even know what ballet was but, once I started, it kept me away from all that was going down in my hometown. Back then, I couldn’t believe that dancing could become a career and something I could actually earn a living from. But then I learnt that this could be my ticket out of Zolani.
I read earlier about your love of pantsula dancing
I used to do kwaito and pantsula when I was young. I still do it now, but not every day like ballet.
Returning home, how do you see dance in South Africa now?
I don’t want to be one of those artists who says that we don’t have the same resources, but the state of dancing in our country really does have to do with how the art is funded. Because of that, we don’t have enough role models. If more people were given the opportunity to dance, we would have a real art here. Overseas, people take it really seriously. We have talented people in South Africa and, with some guidance and support, we could be the best in the world.
You have a girlfriend in South Africa; has it been hard to have a long-distance relationship?
It’s something that you have to get used to. As dancers, we get too busy to think too much or miss each other too much, so it’s doable, but it’s still really hard.
What’s the best part about being a dancer?
For me, the best part, except the dancing itself, is communicating with people. The greatest thing in the world is to make the audiences that come out to watch us feel a certain way. Some people come to the theatre not knowing what to look out for or they see ballet for the first time, and it’s such a great responsibility.
Follow @BalletBlack on Twitter and Ballet Black on Facebook for updates on November’s shows