At their annual Awards late last year, the Arts & Culture Trust (ACT) honoured one of South Africa’s most accomplished dancers for his exceptional talent and tenacity. At 88 years old, Johaar Mosaval took home the Dance Lifetime Achievement Award, sponsored by JTI.
Born in District Six in 1928, Mosaval never allowed apartheid to restrict his dreams. First noticed at a primary school pantomime, he was invited to attend the UCT Ballet School from 1947 to 1949, an offer that was not supported by his Muslim parents or the white community.
While apartheid laws prevented Mosaval from pursuing a dance career at home, it was arranged that he continue training at the Sadlers Wells Ballet School in London. In 1951, he entered the Royal Ballet School, graduating to the Royal Ballet Company a year later.
“The absolute pinnacle of my career was when I was chosen to dance my very first solo for the Royal Ballet, in the opera Gloriana, specially composed by Benjamin Britton for the occasion of her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. This performance was attended by almost every reigning monarch, including presidents and prime ministers from all over the world,” Mosaval recalls.
By 1963, he was ranked as principal alongside legendary dancers. This was the first of several historic milestones – he was also the first dancer of colour to hold the position of principal dancer in a world-renowned company.
In 1975, he retired from performance and became the first dancer to complete the Professional Dancer’s Teaching Diploma implemented by the Royal Opera House. That year, the Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship Award was bestowed on him by Britain’s Queen Mother, which enabled him to study contemporary dance and jazz in America.
His return to Cape Town in 1976 saw him as the first black dancer to perform in the Nico Malan Opera House. He was also the first black South African performer to appear on local television.
Mosaval opened his own ballet school the following year and was employed as the first black Inspector of Schools for Ballet under the Administration of Coloured Affairs. And although his school was shut down when apartheid powers discovered that it was multi-racial, he continued to find ways to dance and teach.
His contribution to the performing arts has been recognised by the Western Cape Arts, Culture and Heritage Award in 1999, the Premier’s Commendation Certificate in 2003 and the Cape Tercentenary Foundation’s Molteno Gold Medal in 2005. He was also awarded Civic Honours by City of Cape Town.
Mosaval says adding an ACT Lifetime Achievement Award to this list is an honour and a privilege. “Arts and culture has been an integral part of my life, and is an important part of South African heritage, one that we need to showcase. My hope is that young dancers dream to satisfy this hunger for the arts, and that they choose to perform these dreams with excellence, grace and physical beauty.”