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Mthuthuzeli in rehearsal with company members of Cape Dance Company for performance of SUN. Photo Helena Fagan

"During most of my life I have met so many amazing people"

LONDON: Mthuthuzeli November is a dancer, choreographer, photographer and DJ by choice. He tells on his Instagram. He is now living most of the time in London.

Born in Cape Town, South Africa and moved to a small town Ashton where he grew up. He got in contact with African dance already as a child and practised it until he was 15 years old. He also enjoyed playing football and other sports.

In 2011, when he was 17, Mthuthuzeli received a scholarship to the Cape Academy of Performing Arts (CAPA) and "after that everything went like a dance for me", says Mthuthuzeli with a big smile!

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Mthuthuzeli November. Photo Helan Fagan

Mthuthuzeli has a nice and smiling attitude. We have met in a Londonhouse in East Putney, not far away from the Wimbledon tube branch.

There are many different styles of African Dance, like Western African dance and Southern African dance, but in all of those dances styles there is always something, which binds them together. African dance is more a dance of rhythm.

"I did learn 'kwaito dance' and 'pansula dance', both styles use a lot of footwork. The dance is from the 1980's and in the 90's the dance was on the highest peak. People created a lot of movements and 'pata pata' was one of the popular steps in clubs etc – and how to express happiness was the goals."

His interest in classical ballet came through his youngest brother Siphesilhe November, now dancing with National Ballet of Canada.

Siphesilhe started to take classes at the dance program Dance For All in Ashton. Fiona Montague wanted to teach young black children who were talented enough to do dance training.

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Ballet Black Company Dancer Mthuthuzeli November. Photo ASH

"My brother decided to go to her class, of some weird reason," says Mthuthuzeli with a big laugh.

"He came back and started to talk about things, I hadn’t any clue what he was talking about. It was plie, tendu and other ballet term. And I told him: What the hell is a plie?"

"But he asked me nicely to go and watch him do the dance training. I remember I skipped football for a day and went to see my brother doing this ballet thing."

"Fiona asked me to do some movements and she put on classical music. She mixed classical dance with African dance in order to make classical dance accessible to young black Africans. With this combination it was easier for them to do classical ballet as it was not so far away from their comfort zone."

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Mthuthuzeli in solo performance of SUN – production of Borne Frees by the New World Dance Theatre. Photo Danie Coetzee

"I started to learn me this new dance style when I was 15. She added ballet steps to the training which also included African dance. The children were very young and they couldn’t easily pick up the steps. If it was too challenging, they might leave."

Mthuthuzeli was slowly introduced to ballet technique. A year later he decided to leave football completely and concentrate on ballet. They trained two-three times a week for a couple of hours after school.

"I got a scholarship for the Cape Academy of Performing Arts (CAPA). I graduated in 2013 but I decided to stay a bit longer to be ready to be a professional dancer. I wanted to be confident and comfortable to face the world."

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Mthuthuzeli November. Photo Nick Guttridge

How did you end up in London?

"During most of my life I have met so many amazing people, helping me through this journey and suddenly I just got an opportunity, so OK, I’m gonna do it!"

It was Simone Muller who did the fundraising to get Mthuthuzeli and another student, Londiwe, to London.

"In January 2015 we flew to London and went to Central Ballet School of London, where we were supposed to be for three months. We joined the second year students when we got here. A few weeks later they moved us to Ballet Central, which is their touring ballet company. We did some of the repertoire from Cape Dance Company, which we had done in Cape Town."

Cassa Pancho, director of Ballet Black saw him at the school. She liked Mthuthuzeli but there was no place available for him. Ballet Black is a small company with just eight dancers.

After the three months at Central Ballet School, they tried to get more funding to be able to continue the training in London. Money was found so they continued to the end of the school year. When the school year was over Mthuthuzeli went back to South Africa.

"At home in South Africa I got the opportunity to be in West Side Story. When it was just a few performances left of the show I got the longest email I have ever got in my life from Cassa Pancho who offered me a contract with the Ballet Black. And in early September 2015 I was back in London."

Mthuthuzeli November. Photo Nick Guttridge

Mthuthuzeli November. Photo Nick Guttridge

"In 2015 while I was still at Central Ballet School. Liz and her family gave me a place to stay for the duration of that time. Ever since my first contract with Ballet Black, I've lived with them and they have supported me for all these years."

Cassa Pancho started Ballet Black with the idea to include black and Asian people in the company, in order to make black dancers more visible.

There were not so many black dancers in companies in Europe. She thought it was important that black dancers were present in this form of art, obviously black dancers can do ballet.

Today they are just four girls and three guys, and they make only two different works per year. They tour from March to November and from November to March they create new pieces for next season.

"We have a 10-month contract, so in the summer we have no work. But then I go home to South Africa and I must also renew my visa, which has to be done in South Africa."

Mthuthuzeli has a PST – Personal Special Talent-visa and it can’t be renewed in the UK.

"I choreograph a lot when I am at home, I teach other dance students as much as I can," says Mthuthuzeli.

He is also a photographer – and he is a very good one!

"I create an image of what I want and name it. I have the title before I know what kind of dance piece I will create. I start to research the title what it is, and I spend a lot of time by myself. How I imagine this piece and how I want to create it. In South Africa I can use the studio and also dancers to develop my idea. It takes me between one week to three weeks to create a new choreograph. The time in South Africa is important for me."

In London he works for the Ballet Black, which gives him less time to create new things.

Mthuthuzeli November. Photo Nick Guttridge

Mthuthuzeli November. Photo Nick Guttridge

Is there a need for a Ballet Black?

"If you just look around you, you will see a need for Ballet Black. If I look at South Africa, we have had 25 years of democracy and not much has changed. Even if we think a lot has changed, it hasn’t. So many people are racist and so many people don’t get a job due to the colour of their skin. Many companies include black dancers, so they can get some money from funding organizations. It’s important that Ballet Black exists! If you want to change something, you have to face it, says Mthuthuzeli, and he continues:

"Many people who visit Ballet Black performances have never been to a ballet show before. I heard a pod cast about our production and a girl had left after the first act, because she didn’t know there was a second act."

Ballet Black hasn’t given any performances yet in South Africa.

“That’s a dream!”, says Mthuthuzeli.

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Mthuthuzeli in rehearsal for piece titled: BLUE – Cape Dance Company. Photo Helena Fagan

"The name of the company is strong! Then you know the reason why it exists. When Cassa Pancho started the company 17 years ago there was no black UK-dancer in the companies."

"Due to funding from the government, the companies must find black dancers for their companies. But the problem is, there is no early training so how are you going to find these dancers. You have to re-train people, which will take another 17 years before they are really good ballet dancer. There are so many things that have to be solved," says Mthuthuzeli with a big sigh.

"Ballet Black has a junior school. When you start dance at the early age of 7-8 years you are so naive and you just love to dance. If you are around people who look like you it is much better. Then it’s easy to forget those black dancers that don’t get work because of the colour of their skin." says Mthuthuzeli.

"It's not what you want, but at the end of the day you are doing what you love. I hope some day Ballet Black doesn’t need to exist. I hope one day we have all different colours in Ballet Black," says Mthuthuzeli November.

Cristian Hillbom
8 October 2018

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