As a creative I always find it fascinating to hear how my fellow creatives stumbled upon their craft. I say stumbled because 9 times out of 10 this is how many creatives find their true calling. And, such was the case for South African ballet dancer Mthuthuzeli November, “I used to play football and my younger brother Siphe decided to go and do these ballet classes that were given for free by an organisation called Dance for All.” It was only after Siphe came home and tried to demonstrate the ballet steps that he had been learning to his brothers that Mthuthuzeli, or Mthuthu as he is often called, decided to skip football practice one day to see if what his little brother had been showing him was true.
Little did Mthuthu know that the visit to the studio would be the start of his love affair with ballet. “At the time my oldest brother was working with the owner of the ballet organisation – her name was Fiona. The kids where I grew up couldn’t speak English so my older brother was translating for Fiona.”
Mthuthu, however, was not a newbie to dance. As well as being an avid footballer Mthuthu was already well known in the community for being an accomplished African dancer. It was in fact because of his background in African dance that Fiona turned to him to help choreograph steps fusing ballet and African dance that the class members could learn.
Dance has always been a part of his life and the rising ballet star often gets lost in his dance interpretations.
“It’s funny because every time I start to think about how I started dancing or how I process dance it almost feels like I’m in a different space. I can’t even tell you how I’m feeling. It’s a very strange thing. Even thinking about what I did a few days ago dance-wise…I can’t remember how I felt then…”
The desire to perform was always in Mthuthu. He explains, “The moment I really realised that I wanted to do ballet was when [Fiona] took us to Cape Town to see the Cape Town City Ballet. They did Swan Lake…obviously (laughs). I remember walking into the theatre – we saw this big glass chandelier hanging above and at that moment I knew where I wanted to perform one day. So, I always had that idea of wanting to be on a big stage.”
Ballet was still something new in South Africa at this time, particularly amongst the townships and you’d be inclined to think that Mthuthu may have received some ridicule from others – particularly from his former football teammates. But, in fact the opposite was the case. “There was some judgement. But, in the community I was well known for dancing so it wasn’t far off from what they knew me for. In the end people started respecting that I was now wearing tights (laughs). Through ballet you get to travel a lot and where I come from most people never leave the community. I got to travel a lot and my life suddenly started changing. I became a role model to most people. When I went back home I was respected for doing ballet.”
Ballet is changing and Mthuthu is excited at changes within the art form. “With every new movement someone comes up with we are exploring the way the body moves rather than doing the classics. Thin, tall, big, small, short – anybody can do it and it doesn’t require a certain type of physicality or body shape. Rather than back in the day if you were not the thinnest person in the room no-one would want to work with you. We’re changing how people view ballet dance or contemporary dance.”
There are some elements, however, that are taking longer to change. As a young black male Mthuthu is all too aware of the prejudices that he has to face in order to live his passion. First of all there is the stigma that ballet dancing is feminine and then there’s the unmissable factor that close to 99% of ballet dancers are white. Surprisingly Mthuthu revealed that he experienced more prejudice as a black dancer in the UK than back in South Africa. He explains, “When you go to see The Royal Ballet you’ll find that you’re the only young black man in the room and those are the times when you really feel like you don’t belong. But, its never really direct. It’s more environmental than anything.
I’m quite different to most dancers in the way I move. I have a very strong African [dance] background and I used to do hip hop [dance], Kwaito style and tap. So, I’m a lot more versatile than most dancers. I’m not as flexible as most ballet dancers though so when I dance I look very different.
It’s so weird because two years ago I was watching Alvin Ailey Company performing – a lady came on stage and I remember getting goosebumps and I couldn’t understand why. Then I realised it was because I was watching someone that looked like me. When I go to see shows it’s not often that the whole stage is filled with people that look like me…”
In spite of this Mthuthu is determined to persevere with his passion and make a name for himself. His motivation? Giving back to his community. Recognising the opportunity of a lifetime he has been given the proud South African is keen to help other less fortunate members of his community. “I want to be able to work in the UK or internationally doing what I do and develop enough skills to go back home and share the knowledge and share the skills with people that come from where I come from. That is my main goal and what I would like to achieve one day is to be able to give back and educate people about dance…”