South African Dance Students Talk About Ballet Technique, Inspiration, and Integration
November 22, 2017. The New Ballet School in San Jose has opened its doors to two male students from South Africa. Although South Africa has produced many white ballet luminaries, Odwa Makando and Lwando Dutyulwa are among a handfull of black ballet dancers who are breaking that mold.
Note: By way of background, The New Ballet School adheres to the ABT National Training Curriculum, which incorporates elements of the French, Italian, and Russian schools of training. The company's upcoming Nutcracker is incorporating some unconventional, local elements as characters, such as Garlic and Walnut.
Courtesy of The New Ballet's Executive Director Dalia Rawson, BayDance.com had the opportunity to talk with Lwando and Odwa about their experiences and thoughts about dance training and South African ballet heritage.
BayDance: How are you fitting in in California? You're from Capetown; that's a big city.
Lwando: Yeah, it's a city like San Jose and San Francisco. The difference is the people, back home, there are really not so much polite people. People are just like friendly here. Taking care of each other. It's like a whole, big group of family looking out for each other.
BD: How long have you been here now?
L: We got here last Tuesday, so it's been like a week.
Odwa: We were here before, for six weeks.
BD: With Alonzo King's program.
L & O: Yeah, yeah. Yes.
BD: What were your impressions of that? Was the training different from what you're used to?
O: Yes, it is very different. And, um, Alonzo is all about exploring, finding new things. Don't try for perfect positions of ballet, try to expand more, surprise yourself. His words are to encourage you to go more, to do more, and surprise yourself at what you're doing. It was very nice. He would say things that makes you wonder about how you move, stuff like, "Your body has 10 billion cells. How many do you think your body uses when you're moving?" Like he's a very intense man. It made us want to go back home to look at things differently, like why are we scared to try new things? Why don't you want to explore? Why must you be captured in this one box of perfection? Whereas in the world of Alonzo it's all about exploring new things.
BD: I assume at home you had more traditional training?
L: We trained mostly in Russian Vaganova style. It's all about positions and knowing your center, which is really important for when you go on stage, then you can use those. But I feel that we're really not exposed to really free your body when you're dancing. It's control, control, control. So when we came here in July for the summer program, we had to let go. It took us two weeks to let go and fit in with the summer program, which brought a new perception of dance and also new ways of moving, which we are really grateful for. We got the best training in Capetown, which I'm really grateful for, but when we came in July we were like, "Okay, what do we do now?" Do we put the two together? We have to decide what works for us and what doesn't work for us, which was really a challenge, a big challenge.
BD: You just started rehearsing here for the Nutcracker. I don't think what The New Ballet is doing is like Alonzo's style, Alonzo's choreography, which, as you say, is more open-ended, expressive. I expect Dalia is more traditional. Is that closer to what you're doing at home, more traditional?
O: More traditional. Yes.
L: Yes. I think we fit in quite well. We were like, "Okay. No surprises. We did this before. We can fit in." I think that's the reason we also managed to catch the Nutcracker quickly, because it only took a week to learn the whole, full ballet. And we did it! (laughing)
O: (laughing) Yeah! I know! I know!
L: I mean it's still very vague, and we're still trying to like learn more and, um, try to perfect each and every movement, but we learned the whole ballet, and we know it. Because we are really used to the movement and the whole training that they're providing here at the school.
BD: What roles will you be dancing in the Nutcracker?
L: I'm doing the Nutcracker, and the Father, and the Prince. (laughing)
BD: You're a busy guy.
L and O: (laughing)
O: And I'm doing the Walnut. It's like solos.
BD: Solos are good.
O: Yeah. We're both grateful because we never thought we could be dancing with a ballet company, because back home there isn't one company that stimulates that hunger to be a ballet dancer. Because back home there are only two companies in South Africa.
L: Ballet companies.
O: Ballet companies. And them, even them, watching them is like, okay, there's nothing surprising. There's not that drive as us young dancers wanting to be like pure, classical trained dancers. Because we did like neo-classical, most of the time, and we do ballet six times a week for two hours. Which, as another thing, our principal back home, the director of the school, she hired an American ballet master, who also taught us Vaganova, and then now she hired an Italian, who is also Vaganova. And what I've noticed is they are both in South Africa having the mindset of wanting to push the ballet technique hard, so they taught us like everything at once (snaps his fingers). So when we came here it was like breaking down everything, like tightening the screws. She (Dalia Rawson) was like, you've got the technique, we just need to tighten everything up, which is very nice because there is no point in coming to a place and not gaining any knowledge. So, that's why we still want more. You can't just decide on one thing. I want to be here. You have to explore a lot of things. And I think being here is the best thing for us, because it's a stepping stone. You never know what might happen next. It's been good exposure.
BD: South Africa has a long tradition of ballet, going back to when Dulcie Howe started ballet at UCT in the 1930s. Many prominent ballet dancers have come from South Africa. The Royal Ballet alone has had many famous South African dancers, including Monica Mason, John Cranko, Phyllis Spira, and so on.
O: That's why actually most dancers come to this side. I think we have the best training there, but not the best companies. There are schools you can go to to train, but after training you have nowhere to go to work. So everyone in South Africa has to come to this side: America, London, Italy, Russia, you name it, to find work because that's where ballet is most popular. But in Capetown, South Africa you have only two ballet companies. If they don't hire you, you have no work. And you can't stay without work, because all that training for what? Nothing. So everyone is coming to this side, which is sad. I wish we had more ballet companies at home. We have a tradition that we can be proud of, but it's really hard to do so. Also we don't have the government support. Even the audience depends on them, like free tickets. It's sad, but what can we do? We have like the really good training. I promise you. It's like really good training. But in terms of companies and job-wise, there's nothing.
BD: Support is everything.
O: Exactly. To prove that support is not there, it's been awhile since I've heard of two ballet companies collaborating. Back home we've only got two, but I think the last time they collaborated was fifteen years ago. And that's really sad because they're not pushing the supporting side of ballet back home. Maybe if they tried to do that, because they're in Joburg and Capetown, a two-hour flight, and maybe if they'd do that, maybe some people would want to join Capetown City Ballet and maybe some people want to join Joburg Ballet. And it's just like they're ignorant and want to do things their own way. Hence, why they're comfortable, we don't get like good competition with other companies around them. They're just comfortable. You see dancers getting out of shape because they're comfortable. They know there's not that one, young star whose hungering to get his spot or her spot.
BD: Where would you like to go from here? Where would you like to dance?
L: This is a tricky question. I feel like we can go anywhere as long as we fit in. Like we're not really that picky. There are many companies very famous, but what's the point? As long as we go to a place where we can grow as artists and do the work that we know we are supposed to do and just like grow from it. As long as we have a job, a proper job, that keeps us going, support our family and ourselves, as well. And then we're happy. I mean we'd be glad to be in the Royal Ballet and all those big company names, but then if it doesn't work, it doesn't mean we have to give up. I mean, the New Ballet, we're really grateful to be here. Who knew that one day? As long as we get the opportunities and the offers. If it's a good opportunity, then we go along.
O: I remember back home they're saying, "You're still young." One day we'll get all these opportunities and we'll just grab whatever we want. And it's kind of fascinating that it's happening now and it's slowly getting there.
O: And I think one reason that we're not so much picky is that, what I said, there is no good competition around South Africa. So we train a certain way, and we trust in what we have. If someone likes what we have, we're gonna go with them. We're not picky in the way that we know we've got good ballet technique and we can go to Bolshoi if we want. I don't think it's trust issues, but it's like we're not believing in what someone else is saying about us. That's why we're not too picky. Whatever come, we'll grab.
L: I know before I came here in July I was so crazy to join the LINES summer program. But I think when I came here and I saw everything I said to myself, "Am I really ready for this?" Because big companies with big names, you can't just go in and join them. You never know how well you'll fit in. We still need to grow and bit and grow and mature before I step into those shoes and stuff like that. So I think if we go to the Royal Ballet and experience that whole feel, maybe that's not my biggest dream because sometimes when you see things on YouTube, you're like, "Oh I want to be there!" But when you get to that space, there's an element of it's not that great. Maybe that's not for me. I love LINES Ballet, but I feel I still need to grow before I join that ballet. From what I've seen now, maybe I'm not ready. Not yet.
BD: You need the technical development first.
L: Exactly. It's not that I don't trust myself, because I know what I want and I know how well I fit in the space. I think when we go to a space and see what it's really like, that's when we'll know what companies we want to join.
BD: Are there any rolls you'd like to dance? A favorite ballet?
O: In terms of ballet, maybe here's a surprise also. Because I never thought I could be a ballet dancer. But I knew that ballet is a fundamental of every dance form, and I have to have like a ballet base technique. And I watch all these clips on YouTube but that's like that's for my soul fulfilling. But I never know. When I got here, I was surprised. She (Dalia Rawson) gave me all solo roles. I was surprised. I don't want to lie. Because you know a person tends to be so hard toward yourself. I really like that because it makes me want to work harder. Because if I'm comfortable with what I have, it means I'm stuck. I'd like to do Don Juan one day, if it's possible.
L: I think it's the same for me. This is the first time we've done a full ballet repertoire. At home we just do like maybe a snippet of a variation or whatever. We've never actually done a whole ballet. So when we came here, we were like, "Oh. This is something new for us." We're able to experience the whole ballet. So it's quite interesting. I thought I've got my classical ballet training and go to maybe like a classical ballet company. But classical and contemporary, many companies do both anyway.
O: It's like a new trend. English National Ballet did their Giselle in classical, and then they did it in contemporary. And like they made a lot of money, and people were surprised that, "Oh. Ballet dancers can move like this." Actually, I'm really glad that it's happening now at the beginning of my career because maybe one day I'll end up in a ballet company where we do contemporary. I feel like I'm stronger or more comfortable in contemporary.
BD: Have you ever seen a Nutcracker performed before?
L: Not live, like just YouTube.
BD: There's a long tradition of ballet in South Africa, going back at least to when Dulcie Howes started ballet at UCT in the 1930's. But that tradition is white, and more recently we see black dancers. There's a black South African in Washington Ballet...
L and O: Andile Ndlovu
BD: Right. and another who last year won an award in the Priz de Lausanne.
L: What's his name, from Joburg?
O: Uh, yeah, we know him. Leroy Mokgatle.
BD: What happened? Why this shift to black dancers?
(L and O laugh)
O: Basically, back home, ballet was, you know we experienced apartheid where some things were for only white people, and some things for only black people. So I think UCT started with ballet, and then slowly colored people entered and then black people. And then from there, all these people were shocked at how can a black person dance on the same stage with a white person. And then in 1994 when everything started to be free, and we got our freedom, I think it opened up the gates for us black people to be curious about learning everything and trying to be equal as white people. And our government really pushed for that. And it happens that everyone is equal, gets the same education, the same training, same everything. And, interesting enough, most people who do ballet in the world are mostly white. So when you see a black person on stage having ballet technique, people get interested. And now with the new laws of combination of foreigners, at least two foreigners in their cast members, everyone wants to grab something that will bring in income to their company. And to see a black person do ballet, that's more audience appealing. People are shocked.
L: Like back home, when people see us dancing, they're like, "How long ago did you get interested in learning that?" and "How long did you learn that?" and they go back home and wish for their kids to do the same thing, which is what the government implemented to do, to make sure that everyone is equal and receive the same training. It's good that South Africans go international and are being recommended and are being noticed, which opens up doors for other people back home. You never know; you might get a phone call someday. It started with white, but then mixed in colored and black, and it's a good opportunity for other people.
BD: There's some controversy about black ballet dancers here. Some people say Misty Copeland's body type is not the classical form or shape for ballet. And other people disagree. By the way, she's speaking in San Francisco next month.
L and O: (smiling) Yeah! Yeah! We're going there!