Mthuthulezi November entered the room where Fiona was giving ballet classes to the children in the Black Township of ‘Zolani’ She asked for his name but seemed not to hear it correctly. She threw her hands in the air and exclaimed in a delighted voice. ‘Tutu.’ The perfect name for a ballet dancer. I know you will be an incredible success!
Everybody laughed and the fun began.
This is the story of one of the unsung heroines of this World. Fiona Sargeant (Sutton) has worked tirelessly to teach ballet, choreography and much more to the black children of the townships in the Western Cape of South Africa.
Petite with long slender limbs, white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes she is an unlikely figure to find in a township. However Fiona believes it is her calling. She has not only been teaching in the townships for over 20 years but she has had amazing success stories!
She has sown the seeds for black poor children to grow and mature and to be nurtured by other hands, so that they gain recognition and dance jobs.
These achievements have been against all odds but her determination and pure grit have overcome the obstacles.
Her first pupil who succeeded in having a full and varied professional dance career was ‘Mbulelo Ndabeni’ He started taking ballet classes with Fiona in his Township of ‘Khayalitscha’ in Cape Town. He still keeps in touch with her and values the immense contribution she gave to his career.
Fiona was born in Wolverhampton in England and trained at the ‘Nesta Brooking School’, ‘Elmhurst’, ‘Ballet Rambert’ and ‘Central School of Ballet’. She had the privilege of working with exceptional teachers, such as Christopher and Carole Gable, Terence Etheridge and Simon Mottram, her first teacher to influence and encourage her love of teaching. She enjoyed a fifteen year professional career dancing with the London City Ballet, NAPAC Dance Company and CAPAB Ballet. Her professional dancing career enabled her to perform and train internationally. Towards the end of her career she became involved with the CAPAB Ballets David Poole Trust ‘Ballet for All’ and later ‘Dance for All’. Fiona is highly regarded as a mentor and teacher with a Royal Academy of Dance ‘Distinction’ Teaching Certificate.
Today she has set up her own company in Montagu called ‘Dancescape SA’ https://dancescapesouthafrica.org.za
She has many ideas and plans for the company. One project being that she is training dance teachers, so that they help her and ensure the continuity of her company. Her passion and belief has already produced results as ballet barres, dance flooring and a set of dance clothes for each child has recently been donated to ‘Dancescape SA.’. In addition to this one of her dancers Lihle Mfene has just won a full scholarship to the prestigious Bates Dances Festival in Maine, America. Who knows where that may lead?
One of Fiona’s resounding successes and cause for huge inspiration to the children today in her care, is the dancer who is affectionately known by her nickname ‘Tutu.’
The following is an extract of an interview conducted by Elaine Mayson with Mthuthulezi November
EM Fiona was your first teacher and she is still working in the townships with her own company ‘Dancescape SA.’
What was the one attribute above all she gave to you?
Tutu: She let me be myself. I think that this is often missing in the tuition given to young dancers today. I don’t like how they are treated. She was never hard on us. She knew the talent was there but she never wanted to take it away. She gave us an opportunity to play and find out who we are. She let us misbehave in the way that we were given freedom to explore movement . It was never just the ballet. Fiona gave us a platform to be creative. Ballet was never forced. She opened the door for us to love ballet so much it was never a chore.
For some reason Fiona knows how to work in the townships. Kids have so much energy there and she allowed them to run around but she was strict enough to guide us all. She never forced our turnout. She showed us how to stretch but she did not force us to do it. We understood it was good for us and she inspired us.
Today he is was one of the principal male dancers at Ballet Black. Here he is in performance at the Barbican where the photographer took photographs of him dancing in their Triple Bill. It included ‘House of Dreams’, choreography by Michael Corder. ‘Captured’, choreography by Martin Lawrance and the World Premiere co-commissioned by the Barbican of ‘Red Riding Hood’ with choreography by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and costume and prop design by Yann Seabra.
Ballet Black is a professional ballet company for international dancers of black and Asian descent. We aim to bring ballet to a more culturally diverse audience by celebrating black and Asian dancers in ballet. We perform and offer community driven classes for dancers and students, young and old.
Our ultimate goal is to see a fundamental change in the number of black and Asian dancers in mainstream ballet companies, making Ballet Black wonderfully unnecessary.
Elaine Mayson is an award winning photographer and a member of the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP)
She has had a successful dance career including nine years with English National Ballet dancing in many of the productions with Rudolf Nureyev and two years with Northern Ballet.
She travelled to South Africa to dance in Napac and it was here that she met Fiona and her boyfriend Mitiya Sargeant, who was also dancing in the company. Elaine was proud to be at their wedding.