Interview: Junaid Jemal Sendi Q&A

Monday 16 March 2009

Junaid Jemal Sendi *Junaid Jemal Sendi began his dance career aged 10, on the streets of Addis Ababa.
Since then he’s performed on stages around the world and is now forging an international
career. He’s in London to perform in Destino, a unique collaboration between
Dance United (who were behind the project which introduced Junaid to dance) and
Sadler’s Wells, which demonstrates the power of dance, not just to entertain,
but sometimes to transform lives.*

*Junaid talks about working with high profile choreographers and why, wherever
dance leads him, he always takes what he learns back to Ethiopia.*

*How did you get into dance? * **When I was about ten years old Dance United sent two teachers (Royston Muldoom and Susannah Broughton) to Addis Ababa to make a big dance piece. They found around one hundred of
us through an NGO (Non Governmental Organisation) who help families whose life
is in a low situation. When I was first got involved I said ‘is that dance?’
We’d never experienced anything like contemporary dance before. After we’d performed
the piece I was crying when they left – I thought I really want to do that! Up
until then I’d never considered doing anything like dance or drama.

They came again to do another piece a year later and they saw that some of us
had the ability to become professional and to spread contemporary dance in Ethiopia.
Eighteen of us out of the hundred were chosen to have five years of training
in contemporary dance, ballet technique, Ethiopian traditional dance, African
contemporary dance, drumming and language skills. Lots of teachers came from different
parts of the world and in 1998 we came to the UK to visit dance organisations,
do workshops, teach and perform for six weeks.

We learned a lot from all the different teachers and their techniques and styles.
And of course Ethiopia has over eighty tribes, most of them with their own ways
of traditional dance and music and that gave us the inspiration to mix them into
contemporary and make something new. After all the training we formed out own
Adugna Community Dance Company.

You were the recipient of a Rolex arts mentoring award in 2004…

Oh yeah, that could be a long story! You have to be recommended and the person
who did that for me was Germaine Acogny, a very strong, famous choreographer and dancer, who had been encouraging me
at her dance school in Senegal. It was a very long process of application and
I never thought anything would come of it, but I got down to the last four and
had to go to Paris to do something in the studio. The others were from South
Africa, Russia and Israel and I still thought they’ll never pick me. They asked
us to improvise for three hours and I said ‘OK I know I can do that’. Then they
sent us back to our countries and two weeks later when I got the call saying
‘congratuations Junaid’ I just shouted out. That was the happiest moment in
my life!

Part of the award was to spend time with a mentor. I spent a year with Japanese
choreographer Saburo Teshigawara. During that time I was observing how he makes his choreography and especially
how he plays with lighting really, really well and also the importance of the
sets. I was particularly asking him how to do solos, because since the beginning
I’d been working with lots of other dancers, starting with one hundred, then eighteen.
The smallest piece I’d ever done was for six people. I’d seen lots of solos and
liked them – but didn’t know how to do it for myself. Saburo said to me ‘you
know when you choreograph a solo to yourself, try and work with the air, or with
the wall, imagining you are pushing your dancing with the air’ – just feeling
everything, as if you are in water and capture those kind of moves and feelings. I
also performed and toured with his company Karas in a piece called Kazahana.

Junaid Jemal Sendi and Addisu Demissie in 'Destino' *In Destino you are dancing in The Empire’s Fall, a new piece by Hofesh Shechter. What has that been like? * **His moves are really unique and its very different from other ways of working – very animalistic, really thick, low and energetic. When I saw Hofesh’s work
on stage for the first time I was feeling that it was going to be really hard
on me. But at Germaine Acogny’s school in Senegal they used to have workshops
in African dance – and I’d done lots of African contemporary, and those kind of
moves have really helped me in this piece.

And how about working with Russell Maliphant and Adam Benjamin?

A Holding Space is more like our story and our connection. Maybe Russell and Adam had been
thinking of doing something else, but when the four of us started to improvise,
they really liked it and recognised the connection with me and Addisu Demissie my colleague from Ethiopia. Lots came out of improvisation and using video
of the process, they picking out really detailed things. It was very exciting.
Russell knows a lot about the physiology of the body, every bone, joint and muscle.
First of all we were confused, but then we started to understand him and the way
he he worked on us has made it look really good.

*What excites you most about dance now? * **I think it really depends on your age (25). For the moment, because the whole
energy, excitement is there I’m just in to performing a lot, but I like to choreograph
and to teach. That was part of our training, because there’s no other contemporary
company in Ethiopia, Dance United helped set up this company which would have
all the resources for us to make our own work, teach other people and perform
as well.

*What else are you working on? * **Recently I’ve been working with a French company Kubilai Khan Investigations, in Toulon. The Director Frank Micheletti saw me perform with Karas – I was the only black dancer with that company and the character I was playing
was a bit crazy. He’d been asked by Avignon Festival to choreograph a solo piece
and eventually he traced me via Japan, to Ethiopia. We made a 30 minute solo,
which was performed at Avignon and also in Germany.

*And what’s next? * **We are really hoping, if we can get funding for it, that we can perform Destino in Ethiopia as well later this year.

Whatever I do I always go back to Ethiopia and feed back what I’ve learned, share
experiences with the rest of the Adugna company.

Destino was at Sadler’s Wells on 12 & 13 March. More details

It then tours to Leeds Cambridge and Manchester. Tour dates/booking details

Watch the Destino trailer video production updates.

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