Ballet Black 2019 Triple Bill – Mthuthuzeli November on creating INGOMA

2019 Triple Bill UK Tour

Zoë Anderson interviews Mthuthuzeli November on the creation of his 2019 work Ingoma for Ballet Black

Sharing something special: Mthuthuzeli November on creating INGOMA

“It’s amazing how quickly life can change,” explains Junior Artist Mthuthuzeli November, in a break from rehearsing his new ballet INGOMA. “I always thought that my first work for the company, if I ever got the chance to create, would be something that shows off the technique – you know, flick-flacks, jumps.” Instead, INGOMA portrays a milestone in South African history, the black miners’ strike of 1946. “In the last year alone,” November explains, “my way of thinking completely changed.”

Some of that change came from an audience question. “We had a post-show talk, and this lady asked if we were interested in telling stories like Nelson Mandela’s or Maya Angelou’s or Nina Simone’s, for black people. My answer was, it becomes very sensitive when you want to talk about a subject like that, simply because our stories never come from a good place. They always come from a place filled with trauma, with negativity. So how do you do something, without imposing that on other people? Because some people want to come to the theatre and just enjoy what they’re watching.

“I started thinking about how exactly would we tell these stories – there are so many black stories we can tell.” The next inspiration came from a showing of South African art. “I saw this painting by Gerard Sekoto. It’s called Song of the Pick, it shows men working. In that moment, it called me. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. It became about mine workers.”

Still, he was aware that the subject would have to be handled carefully. “I had to be very cautious that it doesn’t look like it’s about slavery. I battled to find the right way to do it.” The music was created by South African composer Peter Johnson, in close collaboration with November. “We recorded me, just picking rocks. When we put it into the computer, the rhythm didn’t make me think of mine workers, it made me think of films like 12 Years a Slave. So I took a different journey, I started reading more about mine workers.”

His research led him to the 1946 strike, and to more recent parallels. “The strike went on for about a week. People died and were injured. That fascinated me. The mining industry at home is massive, very big.” For a small ballet company, there was an obvious problem with this subject matter.

“Mine workers are usually men, and we don’t have that many men in the company. I had to find a different way. I was talking to my friend Asisipho Ndlovu Malunga, who has helped me with the piece. She told me that there was another strike in 2012. Again, people died. The thing that most interested me about the second strike was that the women were fighting for their husbands and sons. We have strong women in the company. I wanted to show that side of them – what happens to them, when their husbands, who work in the mine, go on strike and never come home.

“We try to explore these mine workers who lose their lives, for wanting to be paid better, and what the consequences are for those left alive. There’s a sense of continuity – the mine strike in 1946, and then many years later, in 2012, the same thing happens.”

As a dancer with the company, November understands the demands of its touring schedule. “I know how much Cassa has to carry herself when we go on tour, because we take the train. In the beginning, I wanted to create a piece that we could just pick up and put somewhere, instead of involving a whole crew of people. It sounded good at the time! Put on shoes and clothes, and we’re ready to go. But it’s amazing how things can change. The fuller the idea becomes, the more possibilities you can see, the more you want to add things that could help you tell the story better.”

He has now added some props – Wellington boots and pickaxes – but is still looking for designs that “won’t weigh us down when we go on tour.” Yann Seabra, the ballet’s designer, had his own suggestions. “He had this idea of a ladder coming down at the back and people climbing up. I said no, imagine trying to take that to Stratford East! It’s not practical for us.”

The simplicity may be pragmatic, but it also appeals to November’s own ambitions. “I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who creates a work that doesn’t necessarily need costume, lighting, any of the fancy stuff. I truly believe that a work of art should be able to stand on its own. I need to be able to look at the work in the studio, bare, and be satisfied. Everything else can come later – but I want, if Cassa said, ‘We’re doing this outside, in daylight,’ the piece could stand on its own. I like it when I see people, when I see humans dance and do what they’re good at – just them, breathing in the space.”

As he talks about his work, he keeps coming back to the dancers’ humanity – their individual qualities, what makes the dancing personal to them. That feeds into the way the work is cast. It’s not unusual for ballet companies to double- or triple-cast works, so that dancers alternate in leading roles. November has set INGOMA up so that, with each new cast, every performer has a tailored, bespoke version of the role.

“Almost every night is going to be a different person,” he explains. “The choreography for the last solo is completely different. Cira and Sayaka keep on swapping – making it Sayaka’s own when she does it, and Cira makes it her own. We try to establish something where the material is there, but we can break that material down to suit a specific person.”

It’s a method that makes space for individual qualities in the dancers. “One of the things I said, especially to Sayaka, is that as much as this piece is about black South Africans, it’s also about being yourself. For her as a Japanese woman, that’s what I want to see. I don’t want her to suddenly think she has to be black, or she has to be from South Africa to really understand it. It’s about going deep into what it feels like to be a Japanese woman, because you can’t take that away from somebody. It’s about finding those different voices. There are only six of them, but we have ten versions of the same thing!”

Again, there’s a practical side to November’s planning. “We’re a very small company. If anything were to happen, we would still be able to put the piece on stage. In a way, I think it’s a safer way to work, but also a nice way. As a dancer, I find something special when I work with a choreographer who says, ‘What do you feel, do it that way.’ It becomes a conversation. I wanted to share that with everybody.

“Sometimes dancers can feel that they’re not given the right opportunities. They’re my coworkers, they’re my friends – my main goal is for them to go home and feel satisfied. For them to feel, ‘I’m doing what I love, what I think I was meant to do.’ For me, that’s very special.”