Ballet is a form of dance that has been in Kenya since the 1950s, ever since Madame Zerkowitz began teaching at the former British Council complex, which is now the Kenya Cultural Centre.
But ballet had never been taken and taught all over Kenya before. Yet that’s what’s been happening ever since the Dance Centre Kenya (DCK) started teaching children from Kibera and Kuinda as well as from Karen and Muthaiga.
DCK started doing it around five years ago. It got underway soon after the American prima ballerina Cooper Rust got together with three pairs of interested parents and officially opened the Centre in 2013 at a temporary site at the Karen Surgery.
Since then, DCK has grown by leaps and bounds. With Cooper serving as its Artistic Director, DCK first shifted to a spacious place in Hardy. Then, it opened a second site inside the Lavington Mall, and just recently, a third branch was opened at the new Rosslyn Riviera mall.
But that’s only a fraction of what DCK does. In addition to staging its annual ballet, Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovshy’s ‘The Nutcracker’, which opens December 1 at Kenya National Theatre (KNT) and runs over two weekends, first at KNT, then at GEMS Cambridge Auditorium December 8 and the following day at ISK. DCK also teaches dance in more than a dozen Nairobi schools plus it opened up another branch at the Sure 24 Orphanage in Nakuru.
But DCK’s assistant director’s Caroline Slot Wamaya explains that it’s not only ballet that is taught at these scholarship sites. “At Karen C [in Kuinda] and at the Orphanage, the children are encouraged to choose between learning either African dance, contemporary dance or ballet. They also have the option of doing visual art or theatre,” Caroline adds.
At both of those sites, children are taught for free, courtesy of the NGO Artists for Africa which Cooper started over seven years ago to help provide scholarships for talented youth who are nonetheless disadvantaged socially and financially.
A number of scholarship students will perform this coming Sunday at 3pm at the Karen C School in Kuinda. Their performance will be complimented by DCK ballet students dancing in Act 2 of ‘The Nutcracker’.
That includes Lawrence Ogira, 22 who was on scholarship his first year at DCK but having been a professional dancer before coming to the Centre, he now assists with teaching and is on his way, with AFA’s support, to study engineering and dance at the University of South Carolina.
Opening night of the full ballet will be special indeed. For not only will Cooper dance for one performance only, playing the Snow Queen, (Thereafter, the part will be danced by Stella Essing with Lawrence Ogira as her partner). But the ballet will for the first time be accompanied by a live orchestra rather than recorded music.
The Nairobi Philharmonic Orchestra is an offshoot Nairobi Orchestra and will be led by the guest conductor, Jonathan Rush who will also lead the Ghetto Classics Children’s Choir from Korogocho.
The other guest performer is this year’s balletis Baris Erhan of the Turkish State Orchestra and Ballet.
This will be the fourth year that DCK has staged 'The Nutcracker', but as I have seen all three of the previous performances, I am looking forward to this one for several reasons. For one, Tchaikovsky’s music is beautiful. For another, Cooper always re-choreographs the ballet every year to keep it fresh and inspired to fit the new crop of dancers. And three, there are always seasoned dancers mixed in with the new rising stars who Cooper trains as does Caroline and several other first class Kenyan teachers, all of whom have been trained by the artistic director herself.
Five of the younger dancers who are in this year’s 'Nutcracker' are children that Cooper is not only teaching to dance but also mentoring while they stay in her home. Among the five is 12 year old Lavinder Orisa Thuku who is has the leading role this year of Clara, the little girl who’s given a nutcracker doll that comes alive in her dreams and leads her into a beautiful fantasy world that is the essence of the ballet.
Cooper has mentored and home schooled several children since she opened DCK. Most remarkably is Joel Kioko who came from Kuinda and through sheer hard work, dedication, natural talent and Cooper’s care has led to his currently being a student in London at the National Ballet School of UK.