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Kenya: from slums to ballet, pirouette through dance

Kenya: from slums to ballet, pirouette through dance
Dancers from Dance Centre Kenya (DCK) during the production of "The Nutcracker"   -  
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LUIS TATO/AFP or licensors


Bravian Mise does a series of long throws and pirouettes in the narrow living room of a tin-roofed house in a slum in the Kenyan capital. The thirteen-year-old takes up classical dance in the hope of one day becoming a professional.

Bravian Mise is part of a troupe of around a hundred children, supported by Dance Centre Kenya (DCK), who have been rehearsing Tchaikovsky's ballet, The Nutcracker, for months.

The famous ballet tells the story of young Clara who, one Christmas Eve, is given an inanimate puppet, a nutcracker. During the night, the toys come to life and the nutcracker is transformed into a prince.

"I'd never heard of this ballet before I performed it," smiles Bravian Mise. But that in no way diminishes her determination. "I love dancing, I dance because it's magnificent", he continues, just before taking to the stage.

- Months of work -

But before the curtain rose, months of work were needed, under the supervision of Cooper Rust. The American, a former professional dancer turned teacher, is the artistic director of DCK and heads the NGO Artists for Africa, which gives dance lessons to underprivileged children in Nairobi. She makes a point of creating a troupe with children from different backgrounds.

"It's important to show the world that ballet is not just for one type of person. Ballet is about talent, passion, not socio-economic background," says Cooper Rust.

"We don't have a professional ballet company in Kenya", she laments, before quickly adding: "For the moment, but we're getting there".

The young troupe made up of around a hundred children aged between 7 and 17, performs in Nairobi's national theatre. The ballet required hundreds of costumes and props.

For almost two hours, the children performed one after the other on stage, accompanied by live music played by a Kenyan orchestra. And the audience is captivated, particularly during the performance of the famous Russian dance.

Bravian is relishing this moment, as nothing predestined him for dance. The schoolboy lives with his brother, sister and parents in Kuwinda, a shanty town west of Nairobi.

He started dancing four years ago and receives a grant - like around fifty other children - to buy equipment and pay for transport to rehearsals. This is something that many families could not afford.

Like Rehema Mwukali, Bravian's mother, who watches her son train with admiration. She has no permanent job, and her husband works on building sites.

- "Harder" -

"It's much harder for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, they have to work harder to do it," she says, before concluding: "I'm so proud of him, he'll succeed.

Bravian does his daily exercises in a small, stuffy living room, undisturbed by the music emanating from a nearby bar.

Despite the difficulties, he says: "One day, I'll be a professional dancer".

But there is still a long way to go for young aspirants. More than a thousand children have passed through the DCK since it was founded in 2015.

So far, only one has turned professional, Joël Kioko, who now lives in the United States. "But our school isn't even nine years old, and it takes at least ten to train a dancer", relativises Cooper Rust, "sure" that other pupils will also become professionals.

And many young people from modest backgrounds look with admiration at Lavender Orisa's career path.

The 17-year-old from Kibera, the largest slum in the Kenyan capital, received a scholarship last year to study at the National Ballet School in London.

"Being from Kibera, I couldn't imagine one day dancing in London" at the English National Ballet School, says the young woman, who has returned to Nairobi to finish her studies."People tell me that I am a source of inspiration for them", she continues with an embarrassed smile, tiara on her head before taking to the stage.

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