Dancing all the way to New York

Denzel Washington, Lupito Nyong’o, Oprah Winfrey and Donald Molosi are just some of the blockbuster names that have starred on the Broadway stages.

Located in the heart of New York, Broadway is widely considered to represent the highest level of commercial theatre in the world.

Indeed, the just ended 2017-18 season attracted an audience of over 13 million, with the season’s shows grossing US$1, 697, 458, 795 (that’s a lot of Pula!).

Now Botswana’s very own 34-year-old artistic director and founder of Mophato Dance group, Andrew Kola is set to lead his 46-member cast to the Big Apple to mark Botswana’s second entry on Broadway.

On the 22nd and 23rd of August, Kola and his ‘I Love Botswana’ ensemble will fly country’s flag high with their ‘Pula’ production.

This week Voice reporter SHARON MATHALA visited the crew during one of their rigorous rehearsals, where she managed to pin Kola down for a quick chat during a break in practice.

Q. Tell me about your passion for dancing, how did that come about?

A. I have been dancing all my life for as long as I can remember.

I started dancing as early as my primary school days at Diphetogo Primary School all the way up to my tertiary days – back then I was only focused on traditional dance.

My first break came in 2002 when I joined Mogwana Traditional Dance Group.

Q. But you don’t focus entirely on traditional dance anymore, you are more into contemporary dance?

A. With Mogwana Traditional Dance Group I got introduced to the world.

I got to meet people who took us through mentorship programmes and eventually I was awarded a scholarship to study performance arts in South Africa.

When I came back around 2009 that is when I started Mophato Dance Theatre Group.

Q. Theatre as a genre is still in its infancy in Botswana. Why did you choose that route, especially considering its relatively small market? Was it business savvy?

A. Even now, nine years after I formed Mophato, I still cannot say we have reached that point – but here we are going to Broadway (giggles).

I guess I fell in love with performing arts so much that I did not see myself doing anything else.

Over the years, however, I can say that Batswana are slowly becoming tolerable to theatre.

Even our leaders, I can confidently tell you now that we are going to Broadway because the idea was agreed upon and endorsed not only by Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO) but by cabinet too!

Q. So Mophato Dance Theatre and I Love Botswana ensemble, are they the same group?

A. No no no! I Love Botswana ensemble is a combination of different performing groups including Mophato.

The ensemble is a collaborative assortment of about seven groups, namely: Mophato Dance Theatre, Skit Beat, Nare tsa pina, Bana ba kwena, Khudu Thamaga, Ntirelang Berman, and Tsoga Africa.

Q. Okay, please go on.

A. You see I saw a tender one day from BTO asking for companies to tender for their ITB Berlin event because we, Botswana, were going to be the host country at the world’s biggest travel event.

I then presented the idea to BTO and when we got the thumbs up we invited other groups to join us – that is how the ensemble came about.

Q. Your performance at the ITB Berlin was dubbed ‘electrifying’ by the New York Times. Can you take us through that performance which gained you international recognition?

A. To tell the truth there was massive pressure on us. Botswana was the first sub Saharan country to become the host country and we (I Love Botswana ensemble) were the opening performance.

We had to go all out, and I believe we did because we received a lot of congratulatory messages after the performance.

And that was the birth of I Love Botswana ensemble really.

Q. How did you come up with the name, I Love Botswana ensemble?

A. (giggles) There really is no fancy story behind the name.

After the auditions I told you about for the different dance groups to join Mophato to Berlin, we had to come up with a name that consolidates all the groups because now it was not just a Mophato Theatre Group project.

Whilst throwing the idea around the group, we decided to go with the tag line ‘I Love Botswana’ because that was BTO’s tag line and hashtag at the ITB.

Q. Does one need exceptional dance skills to be part of the team?

A. Yes and No. Of course one needs some sort of dance skill but mostly I am interested in what you are able to do with that skill, how you execute and express your feelings through dance.

We have a lot people in Botswana who have at a point in their life come across traditional dance, so what we do is refine that skill.

Most of us have not been taught the rules of the stage, what you should do, how you should look and what we do at Mophato is we basically mould that skill and refine it to be stage effective.

Q. You have also participated at the Battery Dance Festival – take us through that.

A. This was another initiative by the American Embassy here in Botswana.

We started working with them as Mophato back in 2016.

Last year they invited I love Botswana ensemble to New York to participate at the Battery Dance Festival.

There, at the festival, we were approached on the possibility of Broadway.

Most of the people who saw us perform asked why we had not been to Broadway yet.

Q. For those who may not know, explain the significance of Broadway?

A. Broadway is America’s most celebrated stage; most, if not all celebrities you have in America and beyond have passed through the Broadway stage.

Broadway is a street in the heart of New York which has about 500 theatres.

This is the place where tourists spend most of their time at the Times Square.

All of the entertainment in the world is at Times Square – it is basically the world’s biggest entertainment stage!

Q. Word on the street is that BTO gives your group preference over rival groups who also bid for such events and opportunities. Can you tell us about your relationship with BTO?

A. I am glad you asked that question because we hear of such going around.

The truth is back when I started in 2009, BTO did not even know about Mophato.

It’s only recently, especially after impressing at ITB Berlin, where we are frequently featured at BTO events – and by ‘frequently’ I mean about three shows.

We have proven that we are reliable. On top of the talent, we are people who companies would want to associate their brand with, which is most important in our line of business.

As a performance group or artists you should ask yourself, apart from the talent, am I one that companies would want to associate their brand with.

Also, BTO is not the only company we are working with. Like I said, with this Broadway opportunity, it is now the Government of Botswana who is assisting us and not only BTO.

Q. Tell us about the PULA production that you will be showcasing in Broadway.

A. Pula is a word that basically describes us Batswana and our country.

We use Pula for our currency, our flag and even our National Anthem.

When I was growing up we used to be told tales about the ‘rainmaker’, of how she united the different tribes and how we used to pray and celebrate for the rainy season.

Basically I could not think of a better idea to introduce Botswana to the world other than Pula.

So the idea was inspired by the fact the Pula resonates with every Motswana, be it Bakalaka, Basarwa, Baherero, Bangwaketse, Bangwato, every tribe we have really.

Q. How long will you be in New York for?

A. We will be there for about three weeks.

But the performance as you know will only be for two days with three performances – two on the first day and one on the last day.

Q. What does Andrew do besides dancing?

A. Nothing, dancing is my life.

If I am not in the studio I am researching on ideas and sending proposals.

Dancing is what I do every day, whether on paper or here (studio).

Q. TGIF, what will you be up to this Friday?

A. I will still be here for rehearsals.

That is what we will be doing every day until we jet off!

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