LONDON (Reuters) - Two Ethiopians who take to the London stage on Monday evening are living proof that dance really can change lives.
Addisu Demissie, 30, and Junaid Jemal Sendi, 28, will perform in “A Holding Space”, a dance collaboration which explores their extraordinary journey from the streets of Addis Ababa to some of the biggest arts venues in Europe.
In the film “Billy Elliot”, the son of a tough northern English miner breaks taboos and challenges a community’s prejudices by ditching boxing to take up ballet.
In the real world, Demissie was in his early teens and out shining shoes to make extra cash for his family when a stranger turned up at the door offering the chance of free education.
He and hundreds of other children turned up the following day, and quickly realized that the education they were to receive was not blackboards and books but movement and exercise.
In just 17 days, at a time when there were no known contemporary dancers in Ethiopia, some 120 children from the streets were dancing in a performance of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”.
Andrew Coggins, chief executive of the Dance United charity which organized the project in the mid-1990s, recalled the transformation he saw in the children.
“You saw kids on the street who were rather supplicant suddenly standing on the stage and taking their full space in the world,” he told Reuters at The Place, the London dance venue where A Holding Space is being performed.
“It was a tremendous metaphor for what then followed.”
Demissie and Sendi were among 18 boys who were then enrolled on a five-year dance course that earned them a qualification from Middlesex University.
Since 2002, they have performed at venues including Sadler’s Wells, Britain’s most famous dance stage, won a choreography award and helped develop a charity in Ethiopia that uses the arts to reach disadvantaged people.
“The main thing is we’re not dancing for the sake of dancing, we’re just using dance as a tool for changing people’s behavior, changing people’s lives,” said Sendi, speaking in near-perfect English.
As well as taking in children from the streets, the Adugna Community Dance Theatre Company which they lead has begun to work with prisoners and young people with physical disabilities in the first such initiative in Ethiopia.
Others in Demissie’s and Sendi’s place may have been tempted to leave Ethiopia and pursue the bright lights of a high-profile career in the West.
“Of course there is a better life here, there are better chances,” explained Demissie.
“I can live better and I can eat better, but that’s not the important part for me. These people (Dance United) have spent a lot of money on us ... and we have this responsibility.
“I’m not going to be a dancer here because there are millions of dancers. I’m not avoiding competition but as Junaid says, we have more of a role in Ethiopia.”
Of the original 18 who trained on the course, about half have left dance altogether, but the point of Adugna’s work was not to create dancers.
“The rest, they chose to be someone else, but probably the training helped them to see what they wanted and that’s what we are trying to do - give people the chance to see the world from a different direction,” Demissie told Reuters.
The pair aim to continue their work with Adugna and to open their own studio in Addis Ababa if they can raise the funds, as well as expand dance teaching into festivals that will attract visitors from abroad.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato