“Eleanor, Julia in the back there, we are all going to have a turn here!” Harold chuckled at Shauvan’s mock exasperation “Do you imagine what it was like before!?” he retorted
Bruised, strained, fractured, feet are arguably a dancer’s most abused body part. Harold Eric George’s own feet tell a story that prologued in Sierra Leone, chapters in Europe and America, and a current draft collaborating with AfriKera.
A last-minute interview request before a scheduled pedicure would have been dismissed by most, but Harold’s accommodating nature and friendship with my mother AfriKera Founder/Director Soukaina Edom, worked in my favour. Affluent yet down to earth, the Brussel based choreographer, interpreter and father of two, shared 51 minutes of humorous anecdotes, his philosophy and a career trajectory with a multidisciplinary genesis in Sierra Leone.
“When I was younger, I used to do a lot of theatre and karate … so how are we going to bring this to dance! he laughs. “I also lived in the UK and did a lot of ballet, so I’ve been doing dance all my life and at a certain point in Freetown, I was in this group that was doing theatre, singing, the whole thing.”
“By some quirk of fate, I started to become the choreographer and general director of stuff. So, I was doing more and more dance already, getting more interested in it. Then at one point, a white lady from South Africa, called Peggy Harper, shows up, asks around for the best dancers and is told about our group.”
“She comes and gives us a workshop on contemporary dance. She had been in Nigeria working with Wole Soyinka (Nobel literature prize winning writer), we were all very impressed with that, but then she comes in and shakes up all our ideas about dance.”
“We of course being uppity, bourgeois, middle-class West Africans, gave the poor woman a hard time ‘Go back to South Africa with your foolish ideas!’ until we produced a show then something happened for me, especially with regards to improvisation. I kind of knew this was what I wanted to do.”
“I felt I could express myself more than when I was doing a theatrical role, it was more expressive, free, more engagement of the body.”
However, it was through theatre that Harold would visit Zimbabwe for the first time in 2011. Hired by fellow Sierra-Leonian, Patrice Naiambana to choreograph the dance elements of the British Council funded project ‘Gospel of Othello’ he would meet or in his own words, ‘encounter’ his work partner for the last decade in the country, Soukaina.
“The director of the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA), Manuel (Bagorro) invited me to a meet and greet party at Crowne Plaza Hotel. Your mother walked by me and says, ‘Who are you?’ I’m a choreographer and I’m working for … ‘What and you haven’t contacted me!? Um and you are?”
The HIFA dance consultant and artistic director of the Dance Foundation Course (DFC) introduced herself and insisted that Harold come to the National Ballet to teach her students, a request he politely declined due to the tight schedule he was working under.
The opportunity to work together presented itself the very next year when Harold came up from Bulawayo, where he was working with Patrice, to collaborate with Tumbuka. The Freetown native became such a fixture, that when Soukaina was looking to move on from the DFC, Belgian donor-agency Africalia, sought Harold’s advice.
“They were happy to support projects I did with her, because I was based in Brussels. The connection is a no brainer,” he says. “Then we toured Baobab (Shadows) in Belgium, which they were excited about.”
Especially as in addition to having a clear vision of what she wanted to achieve with training dancers in Zimbabwe, she was extremely pro-active and well-organised in terms of project management.
Harold identifies project management as a big weakness when it comes to funding for dance projects in Africa. European donors have even had to pull funding because of late documents. Soukaina’s efficiency meant that she was the best person for him to work with on the continent.
“I’m very interested in training and providing opportunities to African dancers, they remind me of myself. I was also living on this continent till I was 26 years old, went abroad and made a career of something you’re told you can’t live off.”
“That’s what I’ve been excited about, showing people you can do it, especially at the ages we start dancing at, which is quite late - still go and dance with some of the best companies, have a career be creative blah blah blah.”
Pursuing a master’s degree, was the main reason he went to Europe, but he still took dance classes, which got him noticed by people who thought he practiced professionally. Adamant that it was just something he enjoyed, he ended up getting work and made sure any job he took, allowed him to dance full-time. “I was lucky! he chuckles.
“William Bobongo (his assistant choreographer & a fashion designer) and I worked together in a Belgian company and he would say ‘C’mon Harold, we are being paid to have fun!’ and even when someone is saying ‘Do it again!’ you still love it. I don’t think you ever hate it.”
“When you do things that are not just dance based, dancers are the lowest paid. Actors and singers get paid more but are not half as hard-working! Dancers are the ones who come on time, work hard, who come off stage and say ‘I could have done better’. It’s a very strange mindset.”
“We all have our tribe and if you’re a member, you understand, you get it. If you’re not you kind of think ‘What’s wrong with these people? Bending their bodies like that!’. But once you’re in it, you feel like you’re home.”
New York and specifically the Martha Graham Company planted the seeds of Harold’s philosophy. His Japanese-American teacher Yuriko a former lead dancer with Graham, said things that left an impression, decades later.
“When you’re a dancer, you cannot labour under the illusion that most people live (with their entire lives: That there is such a thing as security.”
“When you do that back bend, you have to do it as if you are going to hit your head and die, and you have to get pleasure out of that. You have one life, live it thoroughly and it’s the same way you have to dance.”
“Just be whatever it is you are in that instan, be it fully. Forget about tomorrow because tomorrow will take care of itself. It is what is happening anyway.”
Hedonistic and irresponsible. He sees how that statement can sound like the aforementioned but defends the idea.
“It’s hard to get in, get the job—especially in Europe and America if you are black—there fewer jobs for black dancers. You’re taking a risk with your health, physically it's hard work, not well paid. But you still do it.”
Taking classes with Harold forces you into to dialogue with your limitations, all muscle groups are engaged, bodies glisten with sweat, groans of pain are ignored, and good technique is emphasized.
As an experienced interpreter he has also assisted in training young professionals and says he is just as severe.
“When I don’t see somebody’s motivation, I’m pitiless. I will give people exercises that are so difficult that they can’t do them. Go to your level, do the groundwork and then let’s talk.”
“Some people come to me and say you’re the best trainer I ever had; this is so good you made me see this blah blah blah. Other people will be like ‘Oh my god that was so hard! I wonder if I should do this …’ I wonder if you should do this too!”
“Nobody said life was going to be a bed of roses, but you can still have fun, even roses have thorns. You can work on the thorns and enjoy the smell of the rose later!.”
Conversations with Heterosexual men, TEDX talks, articles on Dianne Abbot’s “crisis of masculinity” were the foundations for Making Men, a choreography that questions /explores ideas on masculinity.
Discussions with film-maker and co-director, Antoine Panier, were exciting enough to both of themleading them to delve into laying bare personal ‘un-masculine’ vulnerabilities of sensitivity and unassured-ness. With both men emotionally invested, the two former dancers started brainstorming how they would bring Making Men to life.
“Antoine wanted to do a film with me, just me on this thing and I was like I just want to work with dancers, I don’t want to dance really,” says Harold.
“We came to a compromise: I do a piece and he does the film. He was looking for the best way to film dance. Both of us agree that from a dancer’s point of view dance was always badly filmed.”
“People just do it in a way that looks interesting … but we don’t see the choreography. We don’t see the development of the choreographer’s vision so to speak.”
Antoine came up with “the stuff that wins prizes” where he learns the choreography and films whilst he’s dancing, “breaking his poor back” but learning, refining after each shoot and upgrading to lighter equipment i.e cameras.
Zimbabwe is the main setting for Making Men’s film, with the logistics, transport, space, etc facilitated by AfriKera. Arguably the most valuable thing provided to Harold and Antoine has been the dancers. But how does the West African view his southern counter-parts?
“These dancers, I don’t know about Zimbabwean dancers in general, are very dedicated,” he says. “What they lack in technique, they make up for in enthusiasm and focus: They come on time, strive and struggle to understand what is being asked of them.”
“One of the reasons they got constant standing ovations in Belgium is because they are really 100% invested in what they are doing.”
Delighted with how the collaboration with AfriKera is going, the plan is to shoot their next film project in Zimbabwe. Coming up with an idea is the easy part, but as Harold reminds me, “Films cost a lot of money.”
Even though the country has been very good to him, Harold would favor West Africa if a return to the continent was on the cards, though he is perfectly happy in Brussels and like Soukaina, wants to help African dance grow professionally.
“What she’s trying to do is not only good but necessary because especially in West Africa, you don’t get this,” he says
“I’ve been invited to teach in Sierra Leone for the last four years and I haven’t been able to go … and that’s frustrating because it’s home. Even Soukaina cannot bring me over for long because there is a lot on my plate. My short term objectives are finding time to do all the stuff I want to do. The best training for dancers is to do projects like this. (Making Men)
“I used to teach at this circus school in Belgium, they have a way where they bring students through from artists to professional. In fact, with Patrice in Bulawayo that is what we did: ‘How do you make this into a business?”
“It’s not just about nice choreography, you have to understand how the lighting, costumes, stage direction, admin etc how all of that feeds into the final thing.”
“It’s not because we are artists that we can get up and do anything we like! There has to be some sort of rhyme or reason and certainly some focus/clarity in your objectives.”
Whilst balancing all of this, Harold also hopes to spend more time with his kids and maintain good health. Shauvan’s work on his feet means that he has already made a good start with the former.
I warned him that I’ll check back in five years to see how he’s doing. But judging on the last decade, I feel that any interview will take double the time to discuss all of his projects and achievements.
Harold’s pedicure and interview done at Shauvan’s Beauty Secret’s.
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