Johaar Mosaval, who broke free of apartheid for ballet, dies at 95

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Johaar Mosaval, who broke free of apartheid for ballet, dies at 95
In a photo provided by Johaar Mosaval Collection, District Six Museum shows, Johaar Mosaval as the prankster Puck in “The Dream,” Frederick Ashton’s ballet based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Mosaval, a charismatic South African ballet dancer who left the racial barriers of apartheid behind to become a celebrated principal with London’s Royal Ballet, and who is believed to be the first South African man of color to do so, died on Aug. 16, 2023, in Cape Town. He was 95. (Johaar Mosaval Collection, District Six Museum via The New York Times)

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK, NY.- Johaar Mosaval, a charismatic South African ballet dancer who left the racial barriers of apartheid behind to become a celebrated principal with London’s Royal Ballet, and who is believed to be the first South African man of color to have done so, died on Aug. 16 in Cape Town. He was 95.

His death, in a hospital after a fall a few months earlier, was announced by his family.

Mosaval was a magnetic performer whose solo roles — and the pyrotechnics he brought to them — were praised by critics and beloved by audiences for the many years he performed in England. A diminutive man, he was the prankster Puck in “The Dream,” Frederick Ashton’s one-act ballet drawn from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; the puppet Petrushka in Michel Fokine’s ballet of the same name, set to music by Igor Stravinsky; and the Blue Bird in “The Sleeping Beauty,” with music by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky.

“His wild, faun-like humor, projected with great power, was unlike anything previously seen at Covent Garden,” Fernau Hall, the dance critic of The Daily Telegraph, declared in 1970; a few weeks earlier, Hall had described him as a “splendid artist.”

In 1965, when Mosaval played Bootface, a clown, in “The Lady and the Fool,” Gerald Forsey of The Guardian said he “stole the show — as he does, it seems, whenever he sets foot onstage.”

Yet early in 1960, when the Royal Ballet toured South Africa, the company left Mosaval behind, explaining that his Malayan heritage meant that he was considered “colored” under the racial laws of apartheid, and that he would in all likelihood be barred from performing in his home country.

The company’s director, John Field, said the decision was intended to save the 29-year-old Mosaval, whom he described as “one of South Africa’s finest ambassadors,” from “an embarrassing position.” But the decision drew outrage in Britain, denounced by Labour Party leaders, who were furious that their own Conservative-led government did not intervene. In Cape Town, thousands protested and threatened to boycott the Royal Ballet’s performances.

Mosaval left the Royal Ballet in the mid-1970s to return to South Africa, where he opened a dance school and took a government position. But it would be nearly 15 years before the company staged a performance that did not have an all-white cast. In 1990, Christina Johnson and Ronald Perry of Dance Theater of Harlem became the first dancers of color to appear with the Royal Ballet since Mosaval’s departure, performing the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince in a production of “The Nutcracker.”

Back home, Mosaval was the first person of color to dance at the Nico Malan Theater, now known as Artscape, where in 1977, at age 49, he performed again as Petrushka — though his contract stipulated that he not touch a white dancer with his bare hands, according to the South African website The Daily Maverick.

In interviews, Mosaval, ever gregarious and charming, would tick off the obstacles he faced as an aspiring dancer in South Africa. He was a Muslim of South Asian descent — “a Black boy,” he said, “from District Six,” a once-vibrant multiracial community in Cape Town that in 1966 was reshaped into a whites-only zone. (By the early 1980s, its original homes had been destroyed and 60,000 people had been relocated.) His deeply religious parents disapproved of his ambition to become a ballet dancer, and his country’s racial laws at the time meant he would never perform for a white audience.

Yet he trained at the University of Cape Town’s ballet school, brought there by its director, the prima ballerina Dulcie Howes. And it was there that he was spotted by two celebrated British dancers, Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova, who invited him to study at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School in London. He joined its company, which became the Royal Ballet, in 1951.

While studying at the University of Cape Town, he recalled, he had to stand at the back of his dance classes, behind the white students. He wondered at the time, “Should I be giving up?” he told a reporter in 2019. “But,” he added, “I was utterly determined to get on, and I think I did it with flying colors.”

Johaar Mosaval, the eldest of 10 children, was born in District Six on Jan. 8, 1928, to Cassiem and Galima Mosaval. His father was a builder, his mother a seamstress.

His family dropped their objections to his dancing when he won over two sheikhs from his local mosque. As he told it, the men had seen a magazine article praising one of his performances at ballet school and summoned him.

“They asked me, ‘Show us what ballet is all about,’” he told The University of Cape Town News in 2019. “Lucky for me, that morning I was working on my agility exercises and I showed them. They were stunned.”

“My sheikhs told my parents that they were enchanted by me,” he added. “They told my mom and dad that if there was an opportunity for me to train abroad, they should let me go.” His parents agreed, he said, but they “asked me to promise to always remember my religion.”

The Muslim Progressive Society helped raise enough money to send him to London to study.

In 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa awarded Mosaval the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold, an honor given to South African citizens who have excelled in the arts, journalism or sports.

Mosaval is survived by his sisters, Moegmina Esmael and Gadija Davids.

“It’s a very, very strenuous life,” Mosaval once said of ballet. “It’s not easy. Everything you do is against nature. Torturing yourself. But if you want to get to the top, it’s up to you.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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