Thoriso Magongwa – The world respects excellence

There are many concerns about diversity in the ballet profession. According to Thoriso, many factors contribute to ballet’s lack of diversity: Economic inequity (ballet training is notoriously expensive), a lack of role models for aspiring black ballet dancers to look up to, and a lack of funding for underserved communities are all issues. Thoriso Magongwa is the first black ballet dancer to perform at the Czech Republic’s national theater. He studied at the Ballet Theatre African Academy and the National School of the Arts, and has performed in South Africa, Germany, Austria, and Russia.

Muzi: I am just curious, how did you end up in this profession and why ballet?

Thoriso: It is quite a simple story actually. I was at school and we had extramural activities and ballet was introduced. I used to be an academic when I was at school and I was always very curious as a child and wanted to do things that expanded my vocabulary and would lead me to unknown lands and when I started off with ballet, it was something I didn’t know anything about because in my family we don’t have a history of ballet dancers, my family is very academic.

When I discovered this world something just attracted me to it.  I like the physical aspect, the French terminology, I loved that it involved my body and I liked that it seemed quite exclusive. It was a huge challenge. It had this elitist thing about it that made me want to fit into it because I’ve always aspired to be the highest version of myself so I always wanted to be a part of that. So I went to ballet and my body was not the right body type but I pushed through, I was very diligent and focused and I knew that this struck the core with my tastes. I had a visceral connection to the synergy of the body, the music, the lifestyle and it took to become a ballet dancer, so that’s how ballet happened to me.

Muzi: You mentioned exclusivity; how do you feel about ballet being perceived as a white profession?

Thoriso: That is a question that people are always drawn to. Ballet is a Eurocentric art form that originated in Italy and France. It is not a black and white art form; rather, it is a Eurocentric art form, and if you look at the history of Europe, you will notice that the majority of the people are Caucasian. Later on, it spread throughout the world, and people became interested in it. It later entered Africa as a result of colonisation. When we look at it in that light, we realize that black people were oppressed by apartheid and were denied access to the worlds of theatre and the fine arts. We only had to educate ourselves over time.

So yes, the majority of people who do ballet are Caucasian because it has been in their cultures’ history and DNA for so long, but that does not mean that it is not open to black people. The same could be said for horseback riding, cricket, or tennis; nobody is stopping us from becoming the next Serena Williams, for example. It is a matter of taste, interest, knowledge, and determining whether you truly desire it for yourself. I don’t think it’s a black-and-white issue, but rather one of personal preference.

Muzi: How can we bring ballet to the townships, particularly to township schools that do not have it? Ballet is taught in your multi-racial schools.

Thoriso: The tricky part is that ballet is not a cheap sport; leotards are expensive, shoes are expensive, stockings are expensive, fees for ballet exams and teachers are expensive, and so on. It also excludes people from underprivileged societies, making it difficult to participate. I know a lot of people in South Africa who go to the townships to do projects, but they are usually short-lived because money is required.

You need help from the government and sponsors; you need people to give you money so you can pay your rent and go teach the kids who can’t afford it. Most of the time, it is linked to the fact that you need to find a space to teach that ballet class because you cannot teach ballet on the field; you need that hall with the wooden floor-specific type of floor. Not every community or school in the township has that, so it’s a very complex and complicated conversation, but it’s one that many of us black people who do go into the ballet world can relate to.

Muzi: What lessons have proven to be the most beneficial in your dance training, and how are you putting them into practice?

Thoriso: Ballet is a very complicated art form. The most important aspect is the constant pursuit of one’s best version of themselves, which is taught through aesthetics, body type. Is your body forming the most beautiful, elegant classical lines? Are you in proper shape and form for the art form? Are you living up to your title and name, the ethereal being of a ballet dancer? That has so many things and avenues in trying to become that kind of person, and I think I took that into my personal life out of the stage in just emulating a very graceful persona and just being very regal and having a very classy persona (so to speak) because I learned through ballet and my training.

Thoriso: Can I answer categorically, and this isn’t just about dancers? It’s about the entire world. The dance industry, like soccer, rugby, or orchestra, the world respects excellence. People will accept you if you are good at what you do. People will notice and identify with a mediocre dancer, black or white. We have a tendency to look for excuses, categorize things, and try to figure things out. You must first determine your body, technique, goal, motivation, and what you want the world to see, and then project that to the world. Own your talent, your gift, and allow others to see only that. When I realized and learned this, I was able to project that energy in the brightest way possible, and it was the thing that opened the doors for me. Understanding that fundamental concept has led me to where I am and where I have been- the world responds to excellence.

Muzi: What are your current and future plans? Where do you see the ballet profession in the future?

Thoriso: I am currently preparing for the debut of a new show called Bolero. Unanswered Questions, a piece choreographed by my artistic director, deals with gender identity, heteronormative society, and the zeitgeist of what is happening right now in the world about people and pronouns (them, they, us, etc.), so he’s going into that whole conversation, which is quite interesting. Right now, I’m also dancing this extensive repertoire. I have a Sleeping Beauty production coming up, as well as a Nutcracker production, so I’m still in our company’s repertoire.

On a personal level, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be a stage ballet dancer. I’m using the universe and my talents, I don’t know if you know, but I have a YouTube channel and I do a lot of moderation for ballet galas and premiers and I interview a lot of artistic directors and ballet icons so I am pushing that and it is really taking off here in Europe and a lot of people like me for that and I want to expand it into beauty pageants and becoming an international presenter and also turning myself into a business and not just being looked as a ballet dancer. My future is a big question mark, but it will be a great one. In terms of Thoriso Mogongwa, the future will see me being celebrated and recognized for all of my hard work.


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