Acting and Dancing in Inner City Leeds

Imagine being a 10 or 13-year-old boy, living in Yorkshire, United Kingdom, black, raised mainly by your mother, in pre-Brexit England and into performance arts; acting and dance- specifically ballet. Reading this, you may (or may not) be inclined to think that those are several odds already stacked against a young ethnic minority boy growing up in the U.K. But what if we told you it didn’t have to be?


Meet Noah and Xavier. 10 and 13 year olds respectively, Madagascan and South African mixed boys, sons of professional dancers, who live in Leeds, West Yorkshire. Who, despite those circumstances mentioned above, live happy, curious, quite normal and forever entertaining lives, whilst navigating the world of entertainment at such a young age. 


Whilst having two boys of such young ages can be quite a challenge itself, their mother Holisoa Andriambolanoro, or more affectionately known as Mbola to close friends and family (“M” is silent when pronouncing), has found a practical way to ensure that all their energy is used in a focused and constructive manner.

Mbola, who was a gifted and quite energetic professional dancer herself, grew up in Madagascar and then migrated to the UK after sending a self-taped audition to the since closed (See footnote #1), Kokuma Dance Theatre in Birmingham. There, she was offered employment as a dancer, albeit with no formal training and was based purely on the strength of her performance, technique and energy on that audition tape. You’ll be excused then if you automatically visualise a colourful, vibrant and exuberant household being painted mentally and the inevitability of the boys becoming young  entertainers themselves! Add to that their father, who also is a professional dancer, has choreographed for various dance companies, was previously an Associate Artist at The Place, lectured at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance and toured the world dancing for Kylie Minogue at her spectacular concerts. Noah and Xavier were basically cornered by the performance gene from conception.

After having the boys and dedicating her life to ensuring they had the best possible upbringing and opportunities to nurture and develop their inherently innate and “no-way-they-could-escape-those” talents, the family has now grown into a settled, non-stop routine of detailed and disciplined scheduling and down-time, that allows the boys to concentrate on their education, performance and each other as they grow, perhaps unlike many British youngsters entering adolescence.


Noah (10) was previously part of the Leeds Children’s Theatre where he learned to harness his improvisational talents, energy and wit as a young actor. Unfortunately, and only recently, due to logistics, time and other elements restricting and causing major scheduling clashes, Mbola was forced to withdraw Noah temporarily from the theatre. Some of the schedule clashes just referenced were also partly generated by Noah’s versatility after he showed an aptitude and interest in dance. Noah was spotted by the Academy of Northern Ballet’s Centre of Advanced Training, at an event held at his school and was later offered a full dance scholarship with the Academy. An incredible feat for any individual (young or old) as the Academy is “the only Centre of Advanced Training in classical ballet in the United Kingdom” (Northern Ballet Limited, 2017)

Though he greatly looks forward to resuming actors’ training, the opportunity cost of foregoing a full dance scholarship at such a prestigious organisation was hard to refuse for both Noah and Mbola. This also eliminated the unavoidable time and scheduling clashes that presented themselves when Mbola initially considered allowing Noah to do both activities.

Xavier (13) is the older, calmer and more subdued sibling of the pair and also has a full dance scholarship at the Academy of Northern Ballet due to his talent, natural, fluid, effortless, unmistakable physique and gait of a dancer. Xavier was also awarded his scholarship to the Centre of Advanced Training after participating in a separate school event, held 3 years earlier to Noah’s, where he was spotted by the Academy’s Education Team. Again, you may say, “What else did you expect? They’ve got 2 professional dancers as parents!” And whilst that assertion may be true, most parents will tell you that being able to contain and keep their children focused, engaged with dance-specifically ballet, following strict schedules and learning time management at such young ages can be a laborious and unenviable task. Many may say also, the biggest challenges of teenage rebelliousness and social angst from their everyday interactions at school and elsewhere, whilst living in a more socio-economically deprived area are yet to come. So far however Noah, Xavier and Mbola have been able to navigate the intricacies of family building and bonding, social expectations (or arguably lack thereof) and the understandable sacrifices required to ensure that the boys can partake in such artistic lifestyles freely and with boundless amounts of love and encouragement. The challenges involved in creating that safe space of protection, support and encouragement in a seemingly rough environment does not go unnoticed.

***

In a recent interview with The Actors’ Post (TAP™), Mbola mentioned that she feared the boys being stigmatised and bullied for being different, not being outside, staying back after school as often or long as others, or even giving into peer pressure and experimenting with smoking and otherwise, with other children the same ages as them. Keeping the boys from becoming one of “those kids going up and down on bikes, scaring people, swearing and drinking and smoking weed leisurely,” is a 24/7 task and probably why she has tried to ensure they are always active and occupied with various activities, within the parameters of what is accessible to her.

It should be noted however that these issues and potential problems of youth anti-social behaviour, drug use and violence occur in many neighbourhoods globally and are not unique to such communities in Leeds. However, for residents with impressionable children, going against the grain whilst living in these areas and steering clear of several obstacles is a real, recognisable and sometimes heart-breaking challenge. While incomparable to somewhere like southside Chicago, the efforts required from parents are similar for imparting wisdom, exercising patience, restraint and indoctrinating children into fully understanding and internalising right from wrong and how to choose wisely in their formative years. Life here is also akin to a game of dodgeball that families struggle through to ensure their children elude the countless social ills that plague many blue-collar communities worldwide.

Despite this undeniable commitment to the boys and being proud of their individual growth and success in their respective fields, it was rather curious when Mbola modestly noted that she “[didn't] consider the boys to be talented.” She interestingly explained the quizzical comment, stating that she believed they were “artistes…with the skills they need to grow into talent.” Essentially, they are blank slates with the potential to blossom into amazing talent if they focused their energies into developing their already strong skills.

She also expounded on the approach taken with the boys from a young age, saying: 


“[Their Father and I], we made a conscious decision that, we would not push them. If those boys were pushed into dance, they would be like…excellent! The skill we both have as parents, understanding dancing and acting and [even] singing sometimes, we could [have been] pushy stage parents and they would have turned into proper…absolutely amazing [performers]. But their experiences are their experiences, so we don’t see them as talented [yet], we see them as raw canvases, who are getting ready to go on stage. They will choose their path…we absolutely don’t push, because if we [did], they would be absolutely like flippin’ Billy Elliots!”


Even more amusing than tri-lingual Mbola’s (See footnote #2) statement above, was the response that Xavier offered to the question “What do you like about dancing?” which was pitched with an astonishing hint of perspective from such a young age that was rather insightful. Confidently but calmly he noted; “dancing is one of those things where, you don’t like it for what it is, you like it for what it could be, and where it can take you.” Delivered with the panache of a seasoned performer with extensive press experience, or as though it was rehearsed for many hours (like he does in training whilst sharpening his stances and pirouettes), he stunned everyone in the room.

“That’s clever!” his mother exclaimed. 


Interesting.

Impressive!

This response if anything, shows that Xavier has grasped by himself, the concept and equation that talent maximisation plus sacrifice equals future success. That, or he’s clearly caught on to adult conversations and supposedly understands the words he uttered. It’s not E=mc2 but having that awareness, that young and maintaining it ensures he would have the blueprint for life that should take him many places beyond the inner-city boundaries of where he resides. Either way, it’s a unique and informed response from a supremely talented teen who, according to his mother, “doesn’t have a clue,” how gifted he is.

Noah, on the other hand is the extrovert of the two. A bubbly, energetic lad, forever in entertainment mode and was really born to be an actor, or at least a performer of some kind due to his versatility. From his improvised dances where he finds ways to rhythmically weave dabbing, to his penchant for dramatically impersonating people on television, he’s also headed for a bright future in entertainment, if he so wishes. Quite carefree and aware, he explained how he engaged with a lead role he was casted for in the play Magic Scarf, after only being with Leeds Children’s Theatre for less than a month.

“…with Magic Scarf, when I had to read roles, the information about it and North Wind came up…it was like a boy, who was childish and really loud. I thought, “oh, that’s kinda like me!”…so it was easy!”


Understanding however that acting requires successful actors to constantly challenge themselves and step out of their comfort zones, he acknowledged later that he would like to also pursue challenging and exciting roles like two of his favourite actors, Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Lawrence. Very enlightening choices for a young male of only 10 years but shows his maturity and ability to be drawn to a range of acting styles despite age or gender.

When asked about the types of productions he would like to be a part of as an actor in the future, Noah was emphatic in mentioning that comedies were his choice as it is his favourite genre. Confoundingly, productions like The Hunger Games franchise which Jennifer Lawrence has successfully carried and the hit television series Game of Thrones were not on his radar.

TAP: Ok, so comedies…anything else you [would like to be a part of as an actor in the future]?


Noah: (Sheepishly responds) Romantic comedies

Mbola: So he can kiss girls!


A slightly embarrassed, amused yet nonplussed response from Mbola there! 

Looking forward, TAP also questioned the boys on their excitement about the possibility of developing future careers in the arts. Xavier, once again exhibiting his maturity, gave a well-reasoned response saying that he was “…quite intrigued about what am I going to do, where I am going to go, where I am going to dance (and) who I am going to play to.” A fair expectation for one his age but also at the forefront of the minds of the adults that surround and support him and his brother as they grow.

Noah, in his own reflective, innocent, conscious and grounded-in-the-now way, took a different approach. “I am excited (about my future) but it’s like far, far, really far from my mind…it’s still, a bit blurry. I am going through it now and waiting to see what happens.” A simplistic, yet incredibly honest and sometimes difficult to comprehend view, particularly for adults who have more socio-political, financial and other petty and major things to worry about (fill in those blanks as you wish!). But maybe it’s the Carpe Diem reminder we need from a carefree child, whom actors are usually coached to emulate; loose, in-the-moment, fun loving, egoless…free.

***

Perhaps the lives, circumstances and mindsets of two young talented boys can give people a lot to think about and/or be grateful for. Perhaps they entertained you. Perhaps their immediate circumstances highlight how much work society still needs to do to create environments, neighbourhoods and individuals that recognise and support each other’s uniqueness and talents- which in turn would assuage Mbola’s fears as mentioned earlier.

Whatever the case, these are two young boys, living in Yorkshire, United Kingdom, black, raised mainly by their mother, in pre-Brexit England and into performance arts. Who, despite their current circumstances also enjoy video games, music, playing instruments, drawing, painting and flying their toy drones. Quite normal and happy like a lot of pre-adolescent children in this world today. They encounter the same and in some cases, worse struggles than many other persons in their age group and make no excuses for it.


With bright futures ahead, Noah and Xavier intend to continue pushing to achieve their dreams, pushing to master the skills they are taught academically, on stage and by their parents. Hopefully they push and challenge themselves and each other to continually progress and carve their paths to greener pastures and successful futures. Paraphrasing that simple truth experienced and spoken by Xavier and adjusting it to apply positively to any hobby or talent, perhaps we can all take a leaf:

Do things, not only for what they are and where they can take you but because of an insatiable desire and love to maximise your talents and efforts with perseverance in that field, as that would equate to future success.

A simple truth.

For those who choose the path of the artiste, more profound words cannot be spoken. For these boys, their journey in the arts has just begun and we all shall see where it takes them.



Footnotes

#1 Kokuma Dance Theatre and many other similar clubs in the UK closed in 1999 due to funding cuts.


#2 Mbola speaks 3 languages fluently; her native Malagasy and French from Madagascar, as well as English


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