From the Street to the Stage
The Destino Dance Company ushers contemporary dance into Ethiopia.
Five men lay on the ground. Some are curled into themselves, others stretched in straight lines. Slowly, heads rise; the men sit up and begin to lift a hand or arm. Some swing their legs around in circular half-moons, others push off against the floor and deftly enter handstands, using canes to support their movements.
It’s early September, and the rehearsal for the recently launched Destino Dance Company is in full swing at the Tumbaho Monopole youth center in Addis Ababa’s Lideta neighborhood. The end of the rainy season brings a light drizzle humming against the metal roof, and the electronic beats of the Chemical Brother’s “Shake Break Bounce” filter through a single speaker. The piece the group is practicing, called Tilla (meaning “Shadow”), focuses on the intersection between the worlds of the abled and disabled. Three of the five performers live with physical disabilities.
The Destino Dance Company’s mission is to help people change their lives through dance. It’s an unusual ambition for a performance troupe, but Destino’s founders have experienced firsthand how exposure to the arts can shape a person’s trajectory.
Junaid Jemal Sendi, 30, and Addisu Demissie, 32, first met fortuitously 19 years ago. At the time, Sendi and Demissie worked on the street to help support their families. They’d never thought about becoming artists, but when the U.K.-based organization Dance United partnered with the Ethiopian Gemini Trust to run free dance classes for youth in Addis Ababa, both boys ended up as participants.
As the classes progressed, each boy revealed a gift for modern dance. Out of over 100 students, Demissie and Sendi were among 18 young people selected to then enter a rigorous five-year training program in Addis. The program brought in accomplished teachers from the U.K. and exposed the students to a variety of dance methods and education offerings. After Demissie and Sendi graduated from the program in 2001, their dance careers took off.
Demissie and Sendi joined the local Adugna Community Dance Company and began traveling abroad to perform. In 2004, Sendi received the significant Rolex Arts Mentoring Award and, as a result, spent a year learning from leading Japanese choreographer Saburo Teshigawara. “My vision is to sing songs through my body,” says Sendi.
Meanwhile, Demissie performed across Europe, including executing several projects with respected French choreographer Sylvain Prunenec. Yet both men always intended to return to Ethiopia. “We were just kids from disadvantaged families,” says Demissie. “We could never have paid for dance classes.”
Similarly, Destino is now developing a free dance education program for 12 teenagers in Addis. The company plans to select participants facing challenging circumstances — such as young offenders and orphans — who will then be immersed in comprehensive dance training and varied education offerings. As Destino is aware of the gender discrimination young women face for accessing arts education, girls will make up half of the students.
Pushing the boundaries of Ethiopia’s arts scene
But Demissie and Sendi’s ambitions for Destino go beyond tackling the stigma surrounding people living with disabilities, or offering a new way of life for Addis youth. They also want to elevate contemporary dance in Ethiopian culture.
Demissie explains that contemporary dance was very new in Ethiopia when he and Sendi began performing years ago. “I remember my first performance at city hall, and people were laughing.”
With Destino, “We want to use some Ethiopian elements in our dance — like stories and music — so people can relate to it,” he says. “Dance is a powerful tool — you don’t have to speak the same language to understand it.”
The founders contrast each other both on and off the dance floor. Demissie is tall and slender while Sendi is shorter and more muscular. Sendi describes Demissie’s movements as sharp and his own as fluid, and each can easily offer up an assessment of the other’s personality traits: In person, Demissie comes across as easygoing and talkative, Sendi quieter and introspective. But as they’ve worked together over the years, they’ve learned to adapt and respond to each other’s styles, drawing on their combined strengths to create Destino. “We understand each other without talking,” says Sendi. “We can create a new piece in one day.”
Perhaps because of this rapport, Destino has progressed tremendously in a short period of time. The company launched in March 2014 to a packed crowd of over 500 people at the Alliance Francaise in Addis Ababa, where the Alliance’s spacious and lush courtyard served as an ethereal performance space against the night sky.
Roughly half a year later, Destino performed “Tilla” at the 10 Sentidos Festival in Valencia, Spain, where the piece received the festival award. “It was my first time in Europe,” says Andualem Kebede, 35, one of the company dancers who lives with a physical disability. “To participate in a competition and then to win the prize was beyond my imagination.”
In late 2014, Demissie and Sendi also visited London, Madrid and Wales, teaching classes, performing and publicizing Destino. They launched a company website and began curating social-media accounts to build a fan base.
But to turn Destino into a sustainable organization won’t be easy. Among other things, the pair will need to raise funds for a permanent studio space, a professional dance academy and the tailored youth program. Beyond that, Demissie and Sendi say their dream is to grow Destino into a national organization, with studios in several Ethiopian cities.
Sendi and Demissie’s grit and dedication to the future reflects the stories of their pasts: It was chance that gave them the opening to live lives previously unimagined, and they are determined to fashion out of their experiences the same opportunities for others.
Back at the Lideta youth center, Destino’s rehearsal is over, but 30 eager children have bounded up the stairs. Their eager voices echo off the studio walls before falling silent as their beginner’s class commences, stretching their limbs in warm-up exercises. Soon, Destino’s founders lead the young dancers through a composed routine, the entire group whirling energetically in simultaneous motion.