Dancers & Companies

From USA IBC–Jackson: Washington Ballet’s Andile Ndlovu

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.

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When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

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"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

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Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

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Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


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PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

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"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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