Ballet Black dancer Mthuthuzeli November will be presenting a work he has choreographed about the struggles of South African miners and their families as part of a triple bill at the Barbican in London. He tells Giverny Masso how he discovered ballet aged 15 through an outreach programme in Cape Town…
How did you get into ballet?
I used to play football in South Africa as a young boy, but I’ve always been a dancer, my family are well known for a style of dance called Kwaito, which is like street dance. When I was 15, I met a lady who was doing outreach work from Dance for All and giving classes to kids who couldn’t afford to do ballet. My younger brother went to check it out and said I should go, so one day I decided to skip football to see what they were doing. My ballet teacher was an English lady and when I said: “I’m called MthuMthu [for short]”, she thought I had said ‘tutu’, so in her head I was made to do ballet.
What happened next?
She had seen Kwaito and had the idea to combine Kwaito and ballet, to get kids interested in ballet. I helped to teach the kids. In 2011, I received a scholarship to study full-time in Cape Town at the Cape Academy of Performing Arts. I studied there for four years and in my last year I came to London on an exchange programme with the Central School of Ballet. I joined Ballet Black in 2015.
Tell me about your work Ingoma, which will run at the Barbican…
It’s part of a triple bill with pieces by Martin Lawrance and Sophie Laplane. Ingoma, which means ‘song’, is inspired by a South African painting by Gerard Sekoto called Song of the Pick, which shows mine workers. It’s a really beautiful painting, and the way he painted intrigues me. I went to see a lecture at the National Museum, and when this painting showed up I knew that at some point in my life I was going to paint the real colours of the image through dance. I was interested in the South African mine workers who went on strike in 1946, and I wanted to reflect the perspectives of their families. It’s about this idea of fighting to change something.
What has been your biggest career challenge so far?
Creating this work has been the most incredible and the most fulfilling time for me. It’s my first big [choreographed] work that people are going to see in London. At home everyone knows me, but no one knows me here. [Choreographing] is my biggest dream, and I’ve always wanted to find a way to kick-start that dream. It’s been so incredible, I haven’t been sleeping much. It comes from a very personal place.
What are your career ambitions?
If my work could go to Sadler’s Wells, that would be amazing. I have a lot of ideas, but because I’m young, sometimes not having the opportunities can drive you a bit mad. There’s a lot of things I want to do. I would like to have my own company or be a resident choreographer in my own company.
Training: Cape Academy of Performing Arts, South Africa (2011-14);
Central School of Ballet, London (2015)
First professional role: Dancer with the Cape Dance Company (2012)