Mr. Gaga’s protected one

South African dancer Londiwe Khoza talks about the challenges facing her year-long intense mentorship with Ohad Naharin.

SOUTH AFRICAN dancer Londiwe Khoza with her Israeli mentor Ohad Naharin at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Courtesy)
SOUTH AFRICAN dancer Londiwe Khoza with her Israeli mentor Ohad Naharin at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If I could buy stock in one young artist, Londiwe Khoza would be at the very top of my list.
As it turns out, my feeling is shared by, among others, acclaimed choreographer Ohad Naharin and Swiss luxury brand Rolex. Khoza, 22, is currently in Israel as one of seven young, international artists selected to participate in the 2016- 2017 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé program.
Since its initiation in 2002, in an almost too-good-to-be-true setup, emerging dancers, writers, architects, visual artists and filmmakers are paired with leading members of their fields for 12 months of mentoring.
The small and distinguished list of past mentors includes Anish Kapoor, William Forsythe, Brian Eno and Toni Morrison.
“I never knew that this Rolex program existed,” says Khoza over juice at the Suzanne Dellal Center. It is early afternoon and Khoza is enjoying a few hours off before going on stage in an evening performance of Decadance with the Batsheva Ensemble.
Khoza is, for lack of a better word, stunning. Everything about her, from her name (Zulu for “the protected one”) to her humility to her physical appearance, is unusual.
With a petite yet muscular frame, cropped hair, dark eyes and a bright smile, Khoza stands out from the local landscape. She is humble and intelligent, warm and disarming.
She has been in Israel for exactly one month and is thrilled, if not a hair shocked, by her new surroundings.
“I love it here. I have loved it from the first day I set foot here. The people are amazing, the food is incredible, there is a sense of richness and history here and I feel very safe here,” she says with a smile.
Born and raised in South Africa, Khoza discovered dance at a young age. “I started to do ballet when I was five,” she says. “I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be a ballerina...
well, a ballet dancer. ‘Ballerina’ is a very strong word. When I was 12, I joined a junior ballet in Cape Town. I spent four-and-a-half years there and it was the worst time of my life. I was told every day that I would never be a dancer. ‘You don’t have the body, you don’t have the technique,’ and so on.”
As nearly every girl to ever enter a dance studio has experienced, Khoza’s teachers found fault with her body, invisible clues that she was too this or that to make it professionally.
In addition, though the ballet world is moving into a more diverse place, black women still face an uphill battle.
“I was told every day that I didn’t have ‘the right look.’” At 17, seriously discouraged but adamant to push on, Khoza approached Debbie Turner, celebrated teacher and artistic director of the Cape Dance Company. “She said I could come and take her class on Saturdays. I started in January and in August of that year, Debbie offered me a job with the company.
It was there that I worked with American choreographer Christopher Huggins, which I believe is the thing that saved my career.”
CDC served not only as a rehab center for Khoza’s psyche but also as an invaluable springboard. As one of a handful of professional dance troupes in the country, CDC provides exposure to South Africa’s dance elite. Though she was not aware of it at the time, it was during a CDC performance that Khoza was spotted by the individual that nominated her for the Rolex program (Khoza prefers not to name names).
“I had just got back from six months at the Center School of Ballet in London when I received an email saying I had been nominated.
I was like, ‘Mom, I’ve been spammed,’” she laughs. “A few weeks later they called to say I was a finalist and that I would travel to Tel Aviv to meet with Ohad Naharin.
I had never seen him or his work before.”
In March of 2016, Khoza and two other finalists arrived in Israel for three days. Their stay constitutes the fantasy of many a dancer worldwide: they took class with the Batsheva Ensemble, watched a performance of The Hole and had a few private rehearsals with Naharin.
“I went home, totally in shock and amazed. I got a call a few days later that I had been chosen.”
In mid-August, Khoza packed her bags and flew to Tel Aviv. She started working as an apprentice with the ensemble immediately. A couple of weeks later, she was flown to Geneva for three days to meet with the other protégés.
“I had a chance to watch Mr.
Gaga, which was lucky. It gave me a new perspective on Ohad.”
Of all of the protégés, Khoza’s participation is the most intensive.
“I am the only one who will spend a full year in another country, working with my mentor,” she explains. Outside of the studio, Naharin and Khoza meet for coffee, dinner and check-ins.
Her unique access to the company has stirred up a lot of intrigue and envy among her peers.
“It’s a lot of pressure. There is a bit of a fabricated hype about me, because of the contract with Rolex and with Batsheva. I am very aware of my role with the ensemble and that I am not really a part of them, I’m an add-on. I won’t be doing everything that the ensemble members will be doing.”
Khoza explains that she will perform one section, the iconic Ehad Mi Yodea in the evening performance.
“I’ve been thrown into the deep end of the shark tank and told to survive. Luckily there are a lot of visuals around that are helping me in the process. I am learning from the people around me. I am learning a completely new language, which can be good, bad, frustrating and rewarding.”
With 11 months left to go in this adventure, Khoza’s goal is to keep the jitters and outside noises at bay enough to focus and enjoy this incredibly unique opportunity.
“The challenge is to stay open, to take everything in and not get too stressed out. I feel that I am building a new part of my life and I am so happy to be here.”
For more on the Rolex Mentor and Protégé program visit www.rolexmentorprotege.
com. To find out about upcoming performances of the Batsheva Ensemble, visit