Dance Center Kenya celebrated its seventh-anniversary last weekend by producing portions of two classical ballets, the proceeds from which will constitute a gift to the Kenya National Theater which is having its own anniversary celebrations.
It’s been70 years since the Kenya National Theater (KNT) was founded (same year the heinous Emergency was instituted by the colonial government against the Kenyan people).
So Cooper Rust, the artistic director of DCK and his board decided that since the Theater has hosted nearly all the Centre’s performances and since 70 years is just as important to the Theater as seven is to DCK, the greatest gift the Dance Center can give to KNT is a new set of lights for its main theater stage.
“We brought two of our own lights for these [celebratory] performances, but the theater still needs more lights,” Cooper said during the opening of the evening’s performances.
She had been introduced to a full-house audience by Kenya’s leading singer-songwriter Eric Wainaina who recalled (with a touch of irony) that 70 years ago, no African was allowed on the Kenya National Theater stage. “And yet here I am today,” he said proudly.
Having a history of fundraising for worthy causes, (like scholarships for aspiring Kenyan dancers from slums like Kibera), Cooper’s main global vehicle for raising funds for Kenyan youth is Artists for Africa.
It’s the NGO she founded and which has enabled DCK to not only offer scholarships to worthy students from underprivileged homes but also send many of those students abroad for further dance studies in the States and the UK as well.
In the meantime, one couldn’t tell on Saturday night which dancers were from Kibera or Kayole, and which were from Karen, Kitisuru, or Lavington. Cooper’s style of teaching is egalitarian. It’s also strict but affectionate, demanding but reassuring, challenging yet precise and professional.
Attending any performance by DCK, one expects to see a high standard of performance even when the majority of the dancers are still in their teens. Last weekend, Cooper’s students performed two of the most challenging segments from popular classical ballets, The Kingdom of the Shades from La Bayadere, and Act III from ‘Sleeping Beauty’.
Both are fanciful stories, the first is based on the story set in India in which a temple dancer named Nikiya (Catherine Abilla) falls in love with a warrior, Solor (George Okoth), who is unfortunately bequeathed to the Rajah’s daughter. When Nikiya rejects the advances of a high caste Brahmin, he takes revenge on Solor. A tragedy ensues, but finally, Solor and Nikiya reunite in the Kingdom of the Shades.
That scene is meant for an elegant, stately and dramatically powerful performance framed by 33 ballerinas, all dressed in white, all ‘en pointe’ (on toe) and all moving in unison.
DCK staged the same dance seven years ago, when the Center was practically brand new. Cooper recalls how they didn’t have the correct costuming at the time and had to perform out on the front lawn of Purdy Arms in Karen. It was an ambitious choice back then.
And it was equally ambitious as we saw on Saturday night when it was performed by DCK’s beautiful dancers. The 33 did their very best to reflect the strength, balance, and ethereal sense of oneness and grace that the dance required.
It was in Act III Sleeping Beauty that the stage came alive with fairies and cavaliers, and even fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood (Cheryl Lobo with Alex Stow as the Wolf), Cinderella (Rebeca Woodward Garaza), Puss ‘n Boots (George) Okoth), and a Wedding Party Pas de Deux (Abdoulaye Diebate and Wanjiru Gitahi).
The first order of fairies included Lavinder Orisa, Rani Shah, Sabrina Kazziha, Keri Yamene, Fiona Liu and Laila Kazziha.
All had their moments to shine. Yet the performance that some of us were waiting for came towards the end of the ballet when the American dancer Nicholas Rose became Prince Desire with Liana Eising as Aurora. Their dance was just too short for the superb elegance, grace, and charm that these two added to the overall performance.
There were countless moments of witnessing brilliant dancers in the making such as George Okoth and Lavender Orisa, Pamela Atieno and Rani Shah, Shamick Otieno and many more rising stars that Cooper will undoubtedly shepherd to new heights that will make Nairobi the leading classical and contemporary dance center for the whole of Africa.