Studying at KHiO 2019: Academy of Dance

Name Thomas Talawa Prestø
Programme Master’s in choreography, Academy of Dance
Age 35

With one foot on Trinidad and one in Nittedal north of Oslo, Thomas Talawa Prestø – the great-grandson of the illustrator Borghild Rud, who made the drawings for the Norwegian Mrs Pepperpot book series and was one of the first to graduate from the Academy of Art – is firmly entrenched in both Norwegian and African culture. For quite a few years he has endeavoured to provide a space for “black, dancing bodies” in Scandinavia.

Why did you apply to take a Master’s in choreography?

It was announced that the Master’s in choreography was to be genre-independent. In Norway we still have only a few genres within dance, and for those of us who work with other expressions, or who seek skills and inspiration from other expressions, there are many exclusionary processes. So taking a Master’s degree at an institution like the Academy became my way of trying to open things up and play a role in the institution getting better at diversity, or acquiring more “diversity capital”, which is not just about people with different skin colours. Of course, it goes both ways between the student and the institution – you give and you take. I wanted to do my part to open things up for future generations, so that they get the chance to formalise their competence. I believe the institution has a responsibility to grasp the change that has taken place within the discipline and find out how to allow more types of dancers to develop rather than to shut them out.

I began the Tabanka Dance Ensemble for the same reason, because I saw that melanin-rich talent was being systematically excluded. I wanted to build a platform where precisely these artistic voices, these artistic bodies, were allowed to express themselves. For how can you have a strong enough background in classical ballet if no one took you to a ballet school as a child? Fortunately, the jazz programme now has also seen other qualities – breakdancers and hip-hoppers, who are extremely talented in the genres they represent, have been admitted. They might have to work harder than all the others, they have to be stretched, they have to work extra hard in ballet, but they also have other qualities that we need at the institution. And it is interesting to see that they are attractive when they graduate. So I want to be strict with the field of art, for if you don’t start at a young enough age, you don’t stand a chance. And there is so much we can do now for future generations – things that we have both the funds and the competence to do.

And now you have graduated! What is your project about?

DE MAN DEM shows the complexity of creating a self-defined identity as a Caribbean man in Norway. The project is about the pressure and the expectations from being a black boy in Norway, how they are often simply defined as “the others”, and that also the [black] male body is sexualised. The title is a play on words in several ways: it can be understood as English “demand them”, as the Norwegian pronouns de [“they”], man [“one”] and dem [“them”] – all of which create a distance – and as the Jamaican expression for “real men”. I chose dance genres that are not part of the curriculum, in order to show that they have artistic value and can appeal to the public. These dances are virtuoso, they’re technical, they’re beautiful. I made the production with a young audience in mind, for example for use by the Cultural Rucksack [a national programme for art and culture at school]. We call attention to melanin-rich role models. They’re needed, and there’s only a few of them now.

What is the most important thing you’re taking with you?

I had a specific skill set when I started here, and I feel I’ve introduced new genres. And the Academy has a capital of recognition that I benefit from. I’ve been given access and entry to a closed field, and I’ve gained a large and important network of contacts here. And I’ve had good supervisors.

What have your fellow students meant for you?

They’ve been important. Taken together, the Master’s programmes in dance and choreography are a very versatile gang! A political gang. It’s not an easy gang [laughs], but an exciting and good gang. I’ve been lucky. There are strong feminist forces here, strong anti-racist forces, queer competence, international competence. We’ve been able to have important discussions about decolonialisation, about MeToo, about most things, really. It’s been a gang that has been confrontational. Pity the teachers! But I hope we’ve done some good as well, also for those who are coming after us.

What happens now?

I’ve been appointed the public outreach officer at Dansens Hus [Norway’s national stage for dance]! My tasks include audience development – both finding new audience groups and taking care of our core audience, with activities that open the art up to the public – but also implementing measures aimed at developing and inspiring dance professionals.

I’m also continuing as artistic director of my ensemble, Tabanka, on the side. While I’ve been a Master’s student at the Academy, we have also had two main stage productions, at the Opera and at Dansens Hus. I was just told that we will receive support for our next production, which will be about “non-appropriated” jazz. As usual, I have enough to do!

At both places – Dansens Hus and in the company – my focus will be on telling a story. It’s easier to convey something to a heterogeneous audience, but how do we talk to a great diversity of audience members at the same time? I think that’s interesting. For example, part of the core audience at Dansens Hus is trained dancers, but I’m just as interested in reaching the average spectator. There is an elitism in the field. Art in eastern Oslo isn’t necessarily the same as art in western Oslo. I want to create art for both areas. When Tabanka dances at the Opera, our core audience is playing away from home, so to speak, and it’s a study in how different segments of the population meet. It really is exciting!