A dancer who came to Newcastle upon Tyne as a six-year-old refugee from Angola is to star in a homecoming performance at the city’s Theatre Royal later this month.
Benedicta Valentina Mamuini, 26, will take on the lead role in family dance theatre production The Lost Happy Endings before ending the UK tour at London’s Sadler’s Wells in April.
But a career in dance wasn’t always on the cards for the former Byker Primary pupil, who is known as Benny. Despite having always loved moving to music, spending her spare time imitating YouTube hip hop routines with her friends, she didn’t have any formal training until the age of 16. Most female dancers begin lessons before they start primary school.
The inspiration for Mamuini’s dance career came during a dance history lesson at Jesmond Park Academy, then known as Heaton Manor School. When Mamuini saw a recording of a performance by African American Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, it made her realise that dance could be a career.
Mamuini, who is now a company dancer and dance artist in residence with Newcastle’s balletLORENT, said: “It was the first time I had seen a group of black female dancers. They performed a piece called Revelation, based on the struggles of slavery. I was completely mesmerised. I wanted to be one of them. Until then, I had planned to just finish my A Levels and then become a midwife.”
Mamuini went on to complete a degree in dance at Northumbria University, studying contemporary dance and ballet alongside salsa, jazz and aerial. She then undertook further study at the London Contemporary Dance School, where she completed a postgraduate diploma. Upon graduation in 2017, she was offered an apprenticeship by balletLORENT.
On March 18 and 19, 2022, Mamuini will take the stage at Theatre Royal in front of her parents, three younger siblings, and many of the people who inspired her to dance professionally.
The Lost Happy Endings is narrated by Joanna Lumley and based on a children’s book by former poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. When a wicked witch steals all of the familiar happy endings from children’s fairy tales, causing tears at bedtime all over the world, Jub uses her strength and creativity to compose some alternative happily ever afters in golden pen on the night sky.
Mamuini first performed the lead role of Jub at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre in September 2021. She said: “I’ll be honest, that first time, I was a complete wreck. But as soon as my foot touched that stage, I stepped into the character of Jub, a magical girl with six fingers on each hand, and became immersed. Dancing becomes an almost out of body experience where I cease to exist, and I become the character.”
For Mamuini, performing the role in front of her home crowd is nerve-wracking but exciting. “My family, friends, people I grew up with and my artist family who encouraged me will all be there. They include Claire Harvey, an amazing teacher who is now an aerial dance performer and runs a BTEC program at Circus Central, and Fiona Reed, my dance history teacher who was knowledgeable and really inspired me. And, of course, Gavin Coward, Debbi Purtill and Liv Lorent from balletLORENT who gave me these amazing opportunities, starting from my apprenticeship until now.”
While Mamuini’s dance journey has brought her back home to Newcastle in a starring role, she is keen to take her career much further.
“I feel that because I came to dance at quite a late age, there’s still so much I must learn. I’m still discovering who I am and what I can bring to dance. I am an African black woman and I want to go back to my roots and explore where I came from. It’s my natural style, it’s how I move, so I want to explore the fundamentals of that.
“For me, there’s always been a part that’s missing and the part of me that lights up is when I see the African diaspora style. That’s when my soul feels complete. I believe it’s my ancestral stirring, in the sense it’s where I know I need to be.
“It’s very important for me to go back to my roots. Although not my home, I’m hoping to go to Senegal and learn Germaine Acogny Technique [contemporary African dance] at Ecole des Sables and explore that whole aspect of who I am. I believe it will make me a better person, and then I can bring it back to Newcastle and share my experiences.”
The Lost Happy Endings is at Theatre Royal, 100 Grey St, Newcastle upon Tyne on March 18 and 19, 2022 at 6pm. For tickets visit theatreroyal.co.uk/whats-on/the-lost-happy-endings.