“Peak of Art”: In Conversation with NdB’s Thoriso Magongwa

“In ballet, we bring painters, designers, musicians, dancers, actors together in such a big passion for a one great artistic experience. And the pressure of being the lead character is… heavy.” Brno Daily’s Melis Karabulut spoke to Thoriso Magongwa, the lead dancer in Beethoven, NdB’s one-of-a-kind ballet production this year, for a comprehensive perspective on ballet, art, and being an expat artist in Brno. Credit: Thoriso Magongwa / NdB.

When I first saw Thoriso Magongwa at the premier of Beethoven, he was the only ballet dancer on the stage before the show started, in his black costume and wings. He got me curious from the first second with this majestic, pure, noble, angelic yet merciless, demonic, grotesque look on his face, owning the stage, owning the orchestra, owning the audience, owning the whole auditorium. He was the ‘death and deafness’ of Beethoven for the night; assigned to own a dual role that was never portrayed before by anyone. And no one could be that better than him. 

My eyes were glued on Thoriso the whole night. I knew that there was something special about this person. He was unapologetically honest, and just himself on the stage. I was so impressed by how everything was serving him on the stage, and how he was serving everything. He was the peak of art, representing dance, music, costume, make-up, acting, decor, in beauty and in grace. 

And I set my mind to meet him in person. 

Thoriso, the first black ballet dancer in Narodni Divadlo, is from Johannesburg, South Africa, and has been living in Brno for the last seven years. His presence in NdB has been an educational experience for the cultural sector in the Czech Republic and Central Europe, from making local make-up artists work on black skin for the first time to inspiring cultural employers to hire more and more international dancers, Thoriso has brought openness and awareness to Czech auditoriums, as an exquisite presence in many productions of the company, building his unique, beautiful and dedicated life as a ballet dancer as in Brno against all odds and regardless of many difficulties. Thoriso’s personal energy has remained as humble, sweet, grounded, passionate, affectionate and wise as possible. 

Credit: Thoriso Magongwa / NdB.

On a rainy Saturday in Brno, I had the pleasure to sit with Thoriso for a fulfilling, inspiring talk that kept me feeling moved, motivated and creative for many days after our meeting, just as I felt after the premiere. His aura could easily capture you in it like a safe yet exciting nest, and you would just snuggle there and enjoy the beauty. These were the first things I told him as well. 

He responded, “I have an eclectic, complex character that has been formed in my journey as an artist, moving from South Africa to Czech Republic. I draw on my personal life experiences and reflect that on stage. Living here in this country, I always feel like I have to keep myself in my bubble. But when I am on stage, it is the time that I actually let go. I let the audience see bits of who I really am. That is probably what you picked up when you watched me in Beethoven, because I have an intensity that I do not show all the time. When I am on stage, I take all of my journey as a ballet dancer there with me, with high intensity. The good, the bad, the loneliness, the commitment, the dreams, the aspirations.” 

Later on, I asked Thoriso to tell me more about his feelings on the stage, especially the ups and downs in his emotions while he was portraying a dual character in Beethoven and then meeting the audience. “Every artist goes through a different experience with emotions on the stage,” he said. “I feel the satisfaction from the audience when I see that our work was a pleasurable experience for them; but I feel that more when I meet people after the show and they tell me how they felt. My food as an artist is offering people the possibility of seeing beauty, finding an aspiration, coming to the theatre and leaving with a different sense of self. If I can be the paint, if I can be the brush, I am very happy. It is not about me, it is about art. I love to be in service. We live in a very weird, dark time now; and giving people that two hours of escape from life outside and being in fantasy, walking into a kind of Narnia makes me feel good. Facilitating those few hours of total bliss – I do love that. It gives me motivation to come back the next day. That is the essence of why people come to the theatre – to have this truly human experience. Yes, we have Netflix and other things, but nothing surpasses a real human experience, the connection, togetherness.”

Credit: Thoriso Magongwa / NdB.

Then I asked Thoriso the one question that I have been curious about, because I knew deep inside that artists suffered the most from the pandemic: “When you were deprived of that connection, what happened to you?’’

He responded, “Great depression. Fear, confusion, feeling completely lost. Many artists have been through these emotions. We started to grow this never-ending starvation for dance, and also question why it was that way, and where it came from. We didn’t know whether we would have any production to be put on the stage, and yet coming from every rehearsal felt like there was no purpose in what we did. My body hurt, I felt tired, and I didn’t see where it was going. I was thinking about how we did not appreciate the production days enough. We are still very scared of any restrictions that may cancel our productions, and put us into that dead end again. Not having ballet has made me love it and appreciate it even more. I take it more seriously now.” 

I told him that I could not even go near imagining how hard it must have been for him and his colleagues to go through this, as artists were the most negatively impacted by the pandemic around the world. Thoriso added, “We are the rainbow of society, yet the minority. All those painters, singers, dancers, make-up artists and so on, we give color to people’s lives; and yet we are the most taken advantage of. Some people think that we are just there, existing. They don’t really understand what we do. We are part of the stream, but we are not mainstream. When the pandemic came, it highlighted the fragility of our careers. There are so many artistic experiences that are not recognized. Luckily, Narodni Divadlo has state funding, but there are so many artists around the world who are doing what I do while having no income or an institution to give them a Beethoven experience. That is why it is hard for people to put themselves in our shoes. Those are rare, glass shoes. Once you are in those shoes, it is a great awakening. You see the world in more sensitivity, and see how miraculous it is.”

I asked Thoriso how he finds this creative inspiration and push in his work; considering the grayness of Brno in these winter days. “Brno is not an inspiring city, and it takes away from your creative flow,” he said. “I call Brno ‘alkaline’, always in a stable state. But we artists need the ups and downs in our lives to feed from. However, Brno does force you to go deeper, so you find inspiration that is not superficial. You have to really think harder to find creative ideas, it draws on your own strength and intelligence to be combined with your past and present experiences. That is where I get my inspiration from: the stillness and quiet of Brno. I am able to reach everything from a clean slate. In bigger cities that I have lived in, my mind used to get full of things that I experience in a day. Here in Brno, I am able to really take in the work in the studio when I am practicing. Also my love for classical music feeds my motivation – with good music, the artist in me pushes forward to capture the character that I am supposed to play. All dancers and artists would be thrilled to give life to something that did not exist before. We have all these good shows like The Nutcracker, The Swan Lake, but they were all written on somebody else. But the character on Beethoven was more characterized by me. I had the great opportunity to give life to a role that did not exist before, and we don’t know how long the production will last. That was extremely motivating for me.”

Credit: Thoriso Magongwa / NdB.

I wanted to dig deeper into Beethoven, as this was his last lead performance at NdB. Thoriso explained, “Being the lead in such a great production means that you are the combination of all the work put together. You have to live up to the ideal imagination of the director with everything you do. My character did not exist before the production. The director came to me and said, ‘Beethoven was deaf, what if we created a character to represent that?’. And I said ‘That is nonsense. But… Wait… That is interesting!’ Finding the character, living up to something that was new… It was all magnificent, and special. You get to give people a sense of direction, another light. When movement comes together with music, it adds to a higher level of artistic contentment. That was what we achieved in Beethoven.”

While I got the impression that Beethoven was the absolute favorite of Thoriso, he said that he did not really favor any of his roles over another. “Beethoven is just fresh in my excitement muscle, surely one of the highlights of my life as a ballet dancer, but I have had many other experiences on the stage when I felt that I was doing exactly what I was born to do. The moments that touch me are moments that bring the truth and resonate with my experiences. At times on the stage you get an epiphany. You feel like the sun, the air, the body, the experiences since your birth have come together to serve this particular moment; through movement. You almost get the chills. I have had that feeling in particular productions, in their own contexts. Sometimes in very, very classical ballet it may be hard to feel that because it is pure technique, but in modern, choreographed storylines it is easier to feel all the way through.”

Later, I asked Thoriso how he liked the company culture in the NdB, and he immediately said: “The NdB is the United Nations. When I first arrived, the company was mainly Czech, but the Czechs are the minority now. Over the years they hired dancers from all over the world. Our industry is international, and the more you involve the rest of the world in it, the higher level it goes. We have dancers from Cuba, Australia, Canada, Italy, South Africa, literally all the continents around the world. We have been growing and getting stronger as a company over the last couple of years. I love the colorful environment, it makes us better. It is sparking change and progress, while we are all becoming ambassadors of Czech culture now. Through us, we spread the word ‘Brno’ all around the world. Our families and friends learn about the food, culture, shopping, Czech people, the city, and more about this country. This way, the reputation of the company has grown as well. Some Czech people find this upsetting, they say that the national theatre should have more Czech people. But in order for things to grow, we need to be open. Bringing in more international people has brought the sense of sharing in the company.”

When I wanted to know about some of the core things that empowered him as a ballet dancer, Thoriso responded that his parents and his discipline helped him become who he is, and who he is becoming every day. “My parents have been committed to making sure that I was doing what I wanted to do. They did not always want me to be a ballet dancer, they were concerned about me being able to make a living with it. But when they saw my commitment to it, and I excelled in it, they stepped back and allowed me to do what I had to do. They were brave enough to let me go. This gave me the power I needed. I can walk in here and stand alone, because I know that I come from a place of love, from parents that respect me. They never questioned anything about who I am. They always told me to do everything truthfully. They never limited me in anything, but by personal choice I don’t smoke, I never had one sip of alcohol in my life, I am a vegetarian, and I am very very disciplined. Also my own taking care of myself combined with the disciplined life of ballet, coming to the rehearsal early in the morning helped me build my self confidence and strength. It helped me get something better than what I originally got. Doing anything that is fine requires discipline. Successful people are disciplined people. Not everyone will get to show their story with a creative product, but their stories will matter to themselves when they achieve them with motivation and discipline, high or low, but at least some level of it.” 

Lastly, I asked Thoriso what he missed about home, being a non-EU expat myself. Thoriso had a little smile, and simply said “The comfort of the known is what I miss. I miss easily buying skin or hair products, or seeing other black people, or seeing familiar faces in our shows sometimes. Just knowing where everything is, knowing what to say, where to say, how to say, without stepping on eggshells. As comfortable as I am here, there is always the feeling of being an outsider. The feeling of knowing is what I miss. But that is the exact opposite of that feeling that made me want to see the world more. I wanted to live through other cultures, hear other languages, taste different food. I miss South Africa, but I am also discovering.”

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