Andile Ndlovu says that ballet requires not mere athleticism but "mental strength, nothing else."
Anyone can build muscle, said the South African dancer, but it requires fortitude for the long hours of training and rigorous schedules.
Ndlovu's mental strength, and his noted physical artistry, have taken him from his native country to the Washington Ballet, and now to the Garden City, where he's a visiting educator and performer for this week's VIBE Missoula.
Ask Ndlovu what else he wants to achieve in his career, and he has a quick answer. He wants to break down stereotypes, especially in his chosen art form of ballet.
When he first began learning ballet, he found resistance. It's not that a black male ballet dancer in his country was unacceptable, he said, "but nobody thought it could be done. Nobody thought that you should do it. It wasn't for you," he said.
Ndlovu has since used his career to break down those stereotypes, winning competitions in his home country and eventually landing his role with the D.C. company.
Last year, he returned to his home country for a six-week run that revised a classic story: "A Spartacus of Africa."
"It was great to be back home and doing a Spartacus that has been turned into an African story," he said. Outside of the lead character (he was one of three principals in the role), South African choreographer Veronica Paeper changed the names to African ones and used African dance styles.
Ndlovu said it's important to have African stories choreographed by Africans.
"Why say 'by Africans?' Because they understand it more. If it's somebody from outside who comes to choreograph a story about Angolan culture, unless you have lived in Angola for more than five years, you've got to research before you even choreograph that," he said.
The dancer would like to return to his home country and help change ideas about ballet so that "people know that it's OK and that it's fine and stop thinking like our forefathers. Our forefathers thought the way they did, so don't look back."
His own philosophy is to "change with the seasons," he said.
Last winter, Andile Ndlovu came to Missoula for the first VIBE event, which brought the Vienna International Ballet Experience to the Garden City through a collaboration with the local Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre.
He competed in the open and contemporary dance challenges, taking first place in both.
For his visit this year, Ndlovu won't be competing. He served as a judge for the open and contemporary dance challenges. He's also been teaching classes this week in those two dance forms for students ages 8 and up.
He will, however, perform at the gala on Saturday at the Wilma Theatre. Ndlovu and Venus Villa, his colleague from the Washington Ballet, will present a set piece from the ballet "La Sylphide."
He said he picked it in part, "artistically to stretch myself as well as to do a different type of role, a different type of ballet where it's not all about being a bravura dancer and showing off all technique," he said.
"La Sylphide" is a "very ethereal and majestic ballet" about a Scotsman who falls in love with a sylph, a mythological creature. "It's just one of the those stories where you love something, but you cannot have it," he said. " ... It has that challenge that I'm sure everyone faces in their lives."
Ndlovu said he returned for multiple reasons. For one, the mountains. There's also the people, including the locals who welcomed him and his friends who perform around the world. He also wanted to speak at the two-day "Art of Diplomacy" conference as a way to expand his career.
The topic was "How Art Can Save Us," a theme that resonates in his own life.
He was raised by a single mother in Johannesburg, who encouraged his interest in dance. He began his training at age 9 in Latin American and ballroom dancing, but it was starting to get expensive: He had to make his own costumes, for instance.
An artistically inclined kid, he decided to go see a ballet. Their work upended the stereotypes he'd encountered about the art as an effeminate pursuit.
He won a scholarship to study ballet in his teens, and his path was set.
"It went downhill from there," he said. "I like to call it downhill, because it's a spiral. It's a spiral, but a good spiral. When you're training, it goes so hard, and then when you get older it's still hard to train, but it's manageable."
He was a natural at the other styles of dance he'd learned, but ballet was difficult in the beginning.
"I had to really train hours and hours and days just in order to change the shape my body's in, lengthen muscles and everything else," he said. The drastic physical and mental training "changes you," he said.
Ndlovu, not yet 30 years old, said in his career he'd like to become a principal dancer for a major company in Europe or America. He sees himself starting his own school, so that by the time he retires the students he trains are performance-ready. One day he'd like to return to South Africa and direct the national ballet.