For the past two weeks, over 90 dancers from around the world have taken over the city of Jackson, Mississippi, for the USA International Ballet Competition. Since Tuesday, the remaining 31 finalists have been strutting their stuff to packed audiences at Thalia Mara Hall. While there’s been plenty of thrilling pyrotechnics in the classical department, many of the contemporary pieces have felt like an afterthought. That is, until Washington Ballet’s Andile Ndlovu, 26, stunned the crowd in an electrifying, self-choreographed solo. Expertly blending traditional African dance and hip hop, his dynamic, rippling performance was a welcome shot in the arm.
Originally from South Africa, Ndlovu started out as a ballroom dancer, eventually switching to ballet at age 15. After spotting him in a South African ballet competition, artistic director Septime Webre offered him a full scholarship to the Washington Ballet School in 2008. Two years later, Ndlovu competed in the 2010 USA IBC, only to be cut after the first round. I sat down with him yesterday at the dancer’s dormitory to talk about how it’s going the second time around.
Was it hard to leave South Africa?
No, not really. When you get an invitation to come to America, you go. It was always a dream of mine. Opportunities are limited in South Africa if you’re as ambitious as I am.
Tell me about the first time you competed at USA IBC in 2010.
It was a nightmare. I came here young and full of energy, wanting to do everything, but not really understanding what it was really that I was coming here to do. We all come here to go for that gold or silver medal, but without understanding how much you can grow here as an artist, how much it helps you to understand other artists and how other people react to disappointment and how others react to excitement. I worked hard, but not enough—not enough on the important things, which I realized after I got knocked out after the first round. And so ever since then, I’ve been doing competitions to just better myself, to nurture my talent and to get the world to see it.
Now that you’re back, how have you applied what you learned the first time?
When I got knocked out the last time, I thought, the next time I come here, I’ll be in the final. That goal has been imprinted in my mind since then. How I got to where I am now is by working on my artistry—to be able to switch from a prince to a happy peasant to a slave in Corsaire or a hunter from Diane and Acteon. I had to work really hard on that, refining all those professional aspects, what I wanted from myself.
Do you feel like you’re representing yourself, South Africa or Washington Ballet?
Representing myself is a good thing, but for me, it’s much bigger than that. You always represent where you come from, no matter how much you’ve been disappointed or not appreciated for where you’re from. You still represent it—you just should have that integrity as a professional.
Your contemporary solo, Wondering Thoughts, really brought down the house on Tuesday night. I noticed it was your own choreography—did that add another level of stress to the competition?
Yes, because I had to edit my solo five times—I was still editing backstage! It’s really hard to choreograph on yourself. You need other eyes to tell you what looks good and what doesn’t. My coach Charla Genn Croitoroo worked really hard with me before I got here. She wasn’t able to come to Jackson, so once I got here we started Skyping during my rehearsals. It was hard, but it helped a lot.
Wondering Thoughts is about two lives, two backgrounds: my life in South Africa, and my life here. I used a lot of traditional movements from home with classical music, to show the two contrasts. The thought is to understand that at the end, they both complement each other. And it’s not separate: Coming from raw, earthy tribal movements and mixing it with hip hop and breakdancing and classical—that’s me confronting the new world, asking myself, “How do I fit in?” And then at the end I realize there’s no fitting in. It’s the same.
What do you hope to come away with from IBC-Jackson?
A gold, silver or bronze medal would be great. But if that doesn’t happen, I’m still happy to be in the final, because that’s the goal I set for myself and I achieved it. If I get an award then that would just put the cherry on top.