The Leeds Northern Ballet dancer and choreographer who grew up surrounded by poverty in South Africa

Mlindi Kulashe grew up surrounded by poverty in a South African township but has gone on to become a dancer and has just made his debut as a choreographer for Northern Ballet. Chris Bond met him.

PICS: Simon Hulme
PICS: Simon Hulme

Mlindi Kulashe’s smile is as disarming as it is infectious. And he has plenty to smile about right now.

Having recently performed the role of Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, he’s now just made his choreographic debut for Northern Ballet in its Mixed Programme. And if that wasn’t enough he’s also rehearsing for The Three Musketeers (he plays Aramis).

Being a choreographer is a big moment in any dancer’s career. “As a dancer you get told what to do whereas now I have to step up and have authority, pretend I’m confident and organise things like costumes. It was a lot to take in initially, especially when you’re doing it for a company of this calibre, but it’s been a fantastic experience,” he says.

What makes Mlindi’s rise even more impressive is the journey he’s been on to get here.

Born in South Africa in 1991, he grew up in poverty in the townships of Nyungka and Khayelitsha as a member of the Xhosa clan.

“Imagine living in a matchbox house with one bedroom and 13 members of your family – brothers, sisters and cousins as well as your granny, and sharing a bed with five or six people, that’s what it was like.

“But there was so much love and so much music and joy,” he says.

Dancing, too, was part of everyday life. “I’m South African and singing and dancing is part of our culture and as a kid I was always dancing.”

He was introduced into the world of ballet when he was 10 years old.

Cape Town City Ballet were looking for someone to play a young Fritz in the Nutcracker and Mlindi auditioned for the part. “I was full of energy as a child and I got the job,” he says, with a beaming smile.

In 2000, he joined the organisation’s outreach programme and every Saturday he went to the University of Cape Town’s School of Dance. “I didn’t even know what classical ballet was and suddenly I stepped into this world that is mainly caucasian and middle class. Most of the time in my training I was the only black person in the studio.”

It was something he was conscious of but says he didn’t feel he was treated differently.

“I was happy there because I was introduced to this beautiful life. When I went to my dance classes the studios were clean and I got the opportunity to learn to speak English, because at the time if you didn’t speak English [in South Africa] you were nobody in society.”

This contrasted with the impoverished township where he lived. “It was a huge conflict for me as a child because I desperately wanted this new life,” he says.

“I couldn’t understand why people made fun of me back in my community when I spoke English, or because I was doing classical ballet.”

At the age of 17, he underwent the Xhosa rite of passage which involved spending four weeks in the bush. On his return, and having finished school, he initially wanted to be an actor rather than a dancer.

He’d been accepted by the university in Johannesburg to study acting but his family didn’t have the money to send him there and were against him going.

Disillusioned, he ran away from home. “I was ambitious and I knew I had the talent, so I took a bus to Johannesburg and stayed with a cousin there and enrolled at the university.”

Six months later, though, his life took another turn when he was offered a scholarship to attend the English National Ballet School, having been talent-spotted in an international ballet competition.

However, without any money to get to London it appeared as though the opportunity might slip by until his mother’s boss came to his aid by getting local businesses to fund his £300 airfare.

He arrived in London in 2010 at the age of 18. “I had my own bedroom for the first time. I had a tiny single bed but it meant so much to me,” he says.

Mlindi spent the next three years at the ballet school. “It awakened something in me, this desire to be the best which I’d never had before.”

He graduated in 2013, at which point he joined Northern Ballet and moved to Leeds. “This passion for dancing grew all the time and I was fortunate to get the chance to join Northern Ballet and this is where I’ve been ever since.”

Leeds was a bit of a shock to the system culturally (not to mention weather-wise), but this melted away the minute he stepped into Northern Ballet’s plush HQ in the city centre. “The first thing we did was to dialogue a scene from The Great Gatsby and because I’d wanted to be an actor I thought ‘this is the company for me’. I like telling stories and that’s what this company is all about.”

He says he now feels at home here in Yorkshire and is grateful for the opportunities his dancing skills have brought him. “I had a tough upbringing but watching television took me to an imaginary world and my dream has always been to be the person who takes other people into that imaginary world, and now I am.”

The Mixed Programme ends today at the Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre, Leeds. Performances at 2.30pm and 7.30pm. For tickets call 0113 220 8008.

The show runs at Cast, Doncaster, on September 21 and 22. Call 01302 303 959.