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In Conversation: Dancer/Choreographer Mbulelo Ndabeni on stage in “Tree”

In Conversation: Dancer/Choreographer Mbulelo Ndabeni on stage in “Tree”

Alt caught up with Mbulelo Ndabeni the South African born London-based choreographer, dancer, teacher, movement director. Ndabeni is also founder and director of N’da Dance Company. His training in ballet, Southern African dance and contemporary dance at some of the top dance establishments around the world have seen him perform with top UK and international companies such as Cape Town City Ballet, New Adventures, Rambert, Company Wayne McGregor, Alesandra Seutin Vocab Dance, Ballet Black and Tavaziva. He also creates works for his company and others, which include Cape Town City Ballet, ADAD’s Bloom Festival, English National Ballet School, Rambert’s new choreographic seasons and Cloud Dance Festival. He is currently on stage in Idris Elba’s and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Tree at the Young Vic.

ALT: How did you get into dance?

M: I was born in the Eastern Cape in a small town called Ugie in South Africa. But I grew up in the townships in Cape Town. Being from South Africa there is always an energy, a vibe, there is dancing in the street. But I was introduced to dancing when some white people from the city came into the township and they were starting dance classes. My primary school teacher said because I had so much energy, I should try the classes after school. I went there and I was hooked because it utilised all the energy that I had.  I soon started my own dance school in the townships. And then I got a scholarship to go to another area in South Africa, there is still segregation upstate, so I went to the colored area to high school learning dance with subjects like biology and I did the practical side of dance. And then I got the scholarship to go to America to train with the San Francisco Academy of Ballet and a dance school called Kaatsbaan in New York. I got another scholarship to come to study at London Studio Centre. It was then I made a conscious decision about what I wanted to do because I knew I can do all other forms from flamenco to street dance as my training in South Africa was very very versatile. I knew I wanted to target this thing called ballet where I don’t see a lot of people that looked like me, it mattered to me and I was like you know what I’m going to do this. So, I left a job in South Africa to train in America and London.  I first got a job in London with Matthew Bourne performing in Swan Lake, that was for two years. How I came to London is I got a scholarship from a colored South Africa guy called David Poole who used to be with the Royal Ballet. Before he died, he saved money for two South African dancers to be brought over to London to train and I was one of the recipients. So, I trained at London Studio Centre from there I was with Rambert for seven years, with Wayne Mcgregor CBE for one year and Ballet Black.

ALT: Can you tell us about some of the forms of dance in Tree?

M: For the last four years I’ve been stretching myself because I felt like I’ve lived in England for 15 years, but people still didn’t know me because I’ve never been offered an opportunity that I could express my skills.  When I saw the advert for this job, and I connected with the choreographer to see if I could do the research and development.  As part of the professional development I wanted to understand the vocabulary and because it is based here and in South Africa. But I wanted to learn or to remember something that somebody at home will say differently, choreographically, artistically and the psychology of home that’s what I was interested in. What’s the psychology in terms of the movement, the collaboration and the creativity? In terms of the vocabulary because I am trained in a number of dance styles and African dance  it is not a challenge for me to tap into that physicality but what the challenge was for me I really wanted to not just to tap into the beautiful form of dance  I wanted to dig into the spiritual aspect of me which is related to dance and the role that I was doing.

Ndabeni with Alfred Enoch image copyright Alt Africa

ALT: Can you tell us a bit about your character/s?

M: I play an ancestor and I also play an ensemble. For the ancestor I am Kaelo’s (Alfred Enoch), father’s father, his grandfather. I wanted to use the fact that I’ve never met my mother’s father, I thought OK this is going to be a clear opportunity to tap into that, to create an energy of my mother’s family that I’ve never met. So, I researched, looking at my family, my mother’s family physicality, to build this grandfather kind of figure. My mother’s family is very royal, very regal. While my father’s is very grounded and very warrior.  I wanted to build these two characters so that I can create the whole scene. Yet see an ancestor that is the grandfather of this young man who is looking for peace for both for himself and for his dead parents. As a South African I tapped into that energy and, I also watched the main character (Kaelo) how he stands, how he moves, his actions. I sing and the singing elements that you see in the piece are such a healing tool especially in the traditional way. South Africans believe our ancestors are never dead they are always alive. I wanted to really share that and bring that out of my body and see this character that can heal this guy, this land. this family and what the story is about.  The ensemble character is more about life in the townships, more about life in South Africa in general. Because I grew up there, I easily tapped into that. The character that I love, and I am so connected to is the ancestor as I learnt something new about myself. It got me into a state of fearlessness as I was working with my internal spirit, my African spirit.

ALT: Tree is about apartheid why is it important that we don’t forget?

M:  Because if we forget we are in danger of repeating the same thing again, constantly. That is what human beings keep doing. We keep repeating history constantly.  In South Africa even though apartheid has ended there’s never been any spiritual healing in the country. There’s never been any self-empowerment, self-reflection in terms of I forgive myself for the pain I have I will heal myself.  There’s a lot of trauma that was never looked at and bringing stories like this especially from a South African point of view, it just means we are in the process of finding ways to heal. We can’t pretend things did not happen, that things are finished just because maybe a group or a fraction of society want to get rid of their dirty laundry so to speak.  So, it is important that these stories are told, it’s important that the world understand that South Africa is the youngest country in the continent. 25 years is nothing, for you know magic to happen or for everything to be lovely jubbly. We are not there yet black South Africans have never been able yet to tell their story because the silencing that goes with the colonial bond, so we have never been able to share our story. As a black South African if I pretend everything is OK it’s fine until the moment that I bring up that my family still live in shacks. We need to tell our story not for an end game to fight but for an end game to heal.

ALT: What do you like about immersive theatre? 

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M:  What I like about it! Yeah. What I love about it! OMG England about time! I have been waiting for this for 15 years, about time.  Where I come from when you perform it not just you the audience is a participator as well. We make noise when we watch things, we are completely part of it. As a performer the audience feeds of your energy and you feed of the audience’s energy there is a constant exchange of energy. What I love about what Idris has done and what Kwame our older brothers has done is that they have shown the industry that there is another side of theatre that we can all appreciate and tap into.  And what it is saying is that we are all equal, that we can love each other, touch each other it’s a loving environment. That’s what I love about Tree I believe that this is the beginning of something quite powerful for us theatre makers.

ALT: What would you say are the key themes to anyone who has not yet seen the play?

M: If music moves you come, if you feel conscious about dancing come because the environment is for you to let yourself be free without judging yourself. If you like drama, storytelling, theatre come. If you want to know about identity and politics come. Tree is ‘a happening. What can I see it heals.

Tree runs until the 24th of August 2019 at the Young Vic. BOOK HERE   Tickets are limited.