Brixton’s Black ballet dancer is back

Shevelle Dynott was nine when a ballet outreach programme visited St John’s primary in Angell Town. Now 30 and after a ballet career at the highest level he is back, reinventing himself as an actor, and planning to give something back to the Brixton community. He spoke to Andy Fox

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Shevelle Dynott

“Why are you doing something like that?” people asked the young Brixton-born Shevelle Dynott, known to all as Shev, when he developed his early passion for dance.

“On the one side you’re hearing that this is a really nice thing and you might go places, but on the other side you’re hearing ‘Nah. It’s rubbish’,” he says.

But Shev’s story is one of fierce determination.

He recently left English National Ballet after 15 years dancing at the highest level, in the face of odds stacked against a young Black boy from Brixton in the predominately white world of ballet.

“I went to St John’s primary school in Angell Town,” says Shev. Now 30, he remembers he enjoying science classes, especially doing experiments, and drama. 

All very normal, until the day an outreach programme sponsored by the Royal Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem visited the school.

The Chance to Dance programme tours inner city schools giving minority background or disadvantaged kids the chance to express themselves through dance.

Chance to Dance trailer

Wholeheartedly supported by his parents and teachers, Shev engaged fully in the programme, but he found teasing from his schoolmates difficult to handle at times. But “why stop when it was a load of enjoyment – apart from the teasing,” he says.

Aged nine, he was invited to audition for Junior Associates, “the bottom rung of the Royal Ballet School”.

He soon made his debut at The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, as a page boy in Sleeping Beauty. He recalls this period of his childhood fondly and it being “absolutely crazy”.

At 11, he became the first Black student to be accepted full-time into White Lodge, the Royal Ballet School in Richmond Park, winning a scholarship to cover the fees.

It is “the school to go to if you want to be a ballet dancer,” says Shev.

Around 1999 the Black Cuban star Carlos Acosta started to make waves in the world of ballet.

Says Shev: “It was the first time I saw someone who looked like me and he was amazing. He performed all the major roles I aspired to.” 

In 2005, Shev auditioned successfully for English National Ballet where he was to spend the next 15 years of his career.

It was here that he found that “in the real world, being a Black dancer was not …”, he pauses, trying to find the right words, “the norm, I guess”.

At the time, he found this hard to understand.

During his time at English National Ballet he remained a member of the corps de ballet, always present, putting in the hard yards, but rarely getting the chance to shine as a soloist or principal.

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Instead, he watched as friends and colleagues were promoted to the roles he craved.

This led to a period of introspection that had Shev doubting whether he had actually been a success at all.

In 2018, a meeting with the artist and photographer Simon Frederick provided Shev with testimony of his success.

Frederick was producing a series of portraits entitled “Black is Black” for the National Portrait Gallery and asked Shev to be one of them.

Along with other hugely talented and famous Black luminaries from all spheres of society, Shevs’ portrait soon hung in the gallery.

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“It was the moment I realised that I had done something. Had succeeded. Maybe not as I thought it would’ve happened as a principal dancer, but I’ve done it,” he says.

Ballet careers at this level are rarely long. In 2019, after a bad back injury, Shev began to think about life after ballet.

His recovery coincided with the first lockdown and, unable to perform, Shev composed poetry, read novels and picked up paints and pencils that had lain idle for years.

Shaken, like so many, by the death of George Floyd, he began to read the works of James Baldwin, the US author, essayist and activist. 

He brings these thoughts into the present with ideas of helping kids in Brixton by establishing an “arts hub” to “give back something to the community”.

His ambition knows no bounds and he is at pains to continue his own arts education. This time it’s acting.

He has been accepted into Brixton’s Identity School of Acting, and is currently working as an extra on Eastenders.

But he has not left his love of dance behind.

Shev is putting together a small company, Arbeau Ballet, with a colleague from his days performing at the highest level so that he can continue dancing professionally.

Shev is determined to re-invent himself. An easy-going, but ferociously determined and engaging talent, he may just be getting started.

Follow Shev on Instagram

Andy Fox is a director of Arbeau Ballet

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