From poverty to prominence

2017-11-05 05:59

Cape Town - Dancer Mthuthuzeli November grew up in Xolani township, Western Cape. At first he starting dancing to support his mother, but now he’s a star.

When he was 15, Mthuthuzeli November lost a few friends when he swapped his soccer boots for ballet tights.

Raised by a single mother in Xolani – outside the fruit farming town of Ashton in Western Cape – the teenager started attending dance classes “as a way to stay out of trouble”.

Under the eye of Fiona Sutton of Dance for All, an organisation that takes dancing to South African townships, he learnt to fuse kwaito and ballet. And now, aged 24, his unique African style is lighting up world stages.

Today, November is signed with London-based dance company Ballet Black, where he stars as Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood.

UK newspaper The Guardian described his performance as “seductively shiny and snake hipped”. November says it is a fairy tale with a twist.

“It is a very interesting twist. The wolf is obviously about getting the girls and eating them. There is an interesting journey between Wolf and Red – ‘yes, no, yes, no’ – will Red stand up for herself? It is a very visceral story that teaches young people, and specifically women, to stand up for themselves.”

Portraying Wolf got him thinking about what it means to be a man.

“The character reminds me of who I was before I started doing ballet. The wolf is very naughty. In a way it is a reflection of what I was when I was younger. It reminds me of being young and free and naughty.”

This week, November will briefly return to Cape Town for the Artscape Theatre premier of two pieces he choreographed for the Cape Dance Company, namely: Sun – The Rite of Passage, and Visceral.

November, who goes by the nickname Mthuthu, became emotional during an interview at Ballet Black’s dance studio in central London. He recalled how he and his younger brother, Siphe, started dancing with Sutton, hoping to find a way to support their mother Nomasiniya.

“My father left when I was five. At the time, my mother was pregnant with my younger brother Siphe,” he says.

“It was really tough to see our mother struggle to support five children. Our three elder brothers didn’t have jobs. Siphe and I would speak about how we could get out of Xolani to take care of our mother.”

At November’s very first ballet class, Sutton predicted he would be a great dancer as his nickname sounded like “tutu”, a costume traditionally worn by ballerinas.

It was tough though, because November’s conventional ideas of masculinity did not leave room for ballet.

“I mean, before starting ballet I was the captain of the soccer team. I was well respected.

“Then my brother and I started wearing ballet tights. I would say I lost a few friends at the time.”

But as his neighbours and friends saw ballet bring change to November’s life, they started treating him differently and he was respected once again.

November was awarded a scholarship to attend the Cape Academy of Performing Arts in 2011, after which he won gold at the South African International Ballet Competition in 2012 and 2014.

In 2015, he travelled to the United Kingdom, where he joined Ballet Black, a company that gives a home to Asian and African dancers in London.

Back home, November’s ensemble piece Sun – The Rite of Passage, reflects on what it means to be a man.

“In my tradition, being a man means going to the bush and getting circumcised, versus more Western ideas of masculinity, so my piece explores all these different ideas.”

The Artscape Theatre describes the piece as “a journey into adulthood and finding one’s path and unique place in the world while navigating the challenges of the 21st century in a modern yet traditional context”.

November has dedicated Sun to Sutton, who passed away last month.

November cherished his first dance instructor, and was visibly moved when speaking of her. He says Sutton changed his life.

“The moment I heard Fiona passed away, I thought to myself if it wasn’t for her, where would I be? As much as I played football, I don’t recall it taking anyone outside of Xolani. So, ja, I don’t know where I’d be.”

Meanwhile, November’s brother Siphe left South Africa when he was 11 to enrol at a ballet school in Canada. He got his first contract with the National Ballet of Canada earlier this year.

“My younger brother is my role model,” November said.

“I’ve had the opportunity to watch Siphe grow into this incredible young man. I went to see him about two years ago at a dance festival in Holland. It was the first time I saw him dance as before that we always shared a stage. When he stepped on stage I couldn’t believe the man he had become.”

November started sobbing as he recalled the moment: “And I always wished Fiona and my mother could have had the opportunity to see the man he had become.”

(Photos: Bill Cooper/Helena Fagan)

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