Christopher L Huggins has a family tree so extensive, its graphic reproduction can no longer hang on the wall. Instead, it sits on the floor in his hallway – a talking point for guests who visit. “I’d say that’s my family tree! And I was dead centre. Centre stage. In the spotlight. I thought that was funny,” he laughs. “We have like 400 living members of our family right now, four or five generations,” he muses. “Every five years, there’s like another 100 names that have to go up on there. It’s crazy.”
We’re talking family, mothers, skin, diet, ageing and cancer. Looking at old portraits, it’s clear who Huggins gets his smile from. “My mother was so beautiful that all the men in Boston used to chase her. They used to call her the Belle of Sugar Hill,” he says.
One of nine children, Huggins trained under Andrea Herbert-Major, Danny Sloan and Martha Armstrong Gray before joining Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Aterballetto of Reggio Emilia, Italy as a soloist. He has since worked in Italy, Japan, Jamaica and throughout the US as a dancer, teacher and choreographer.
A familiar face at the Cape Dance Company (CDC) studio in Westlake, Cape Town, for which he has shared several commissioned works, Huggins is back in the Mother City to stage his award-winning work for Cape Town City Ballet where CDC founding artistic director Debbie Turner is now CEO.
Enemy Behind the Gates, which has been described as a “finely-constructed, adrenaline-packed 2001 masterpiece”, won him the 2002 Alvin Ailey Award for Best Choreography from the Black Theater Alliance in Chicago for Philadanco! and it forms part of the CTCB triple bill, Amaranth, which opens at the Artscape Opera House. While many local dance patrons will be familiar with the piece, what nobody in the world has seen is it being performed by 60 dancers – comprising 37 contracted dancers and five ad-hoc members of CTCB as well as Cape Academy of Dance tertiary students.
The work is technically demanding, but the approach by those unfamiliar with the choreography has been improving with practice. Enemy features “small, short vignettes. They’ve got to come in, attack, leave and repeat. You need energy to sustain that,” says Huggins.
In rehearsal, he urges them to use their ballet technique. “When you’ve got great, strong technique, it’s powerful,” he says. “It’s an amazing feeling to have that much control over your body and still be able to put forth the quality of movement that’s expected. That’s exhilarating.”
The dancers must draw on their barre work to execute the attitude turns, arabesques and jumps. “It’s very exciting to watch – it takes your breath away,” says Huggins. “We did a showing last week, and one lady who I think was a patron of CTCB for a long time was so moved she couldn’t stop shaking. ‘It just drew me in and held on to me, and then threw me out,’ she told me. I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what it does.’”
Huggins’s presence will no doubt have been equally motivating and inspiring for the dancers. His advice to them is relevant to anybody pursuing a professional career in ballet. “Give it your all, now, because you’ll never recapture these days. And I promise you, you’ll miss them when they’re gone. Do your best. Be your best. Be your absolute best,” he urges.
Huggins might be 56 years young, but he can’t move a muscle in class, in the rehearsal studio or on stage without grabbing people’s attention. He still performs occasionally, solos and pas de deux, usually in Japan, without suffering pain or injury. He’s that fit and healthy. His secret? “When I move, when I’m thinking about dancing, I’m thinking about painting the space. You’ve got to paint the air with your body,” he says. “The company saw my heart in what I was doing. I’m older but I still love what I do. I love to move.”
Amaranth will be performed at the Artscape Opera House from 22 June until 7 July. The programme includes George Balanchine’s Serenade and Frank Staff’s Transfigured Night. Set and costume design for Transfigured Night is by Peter Cazalet while lighting design for the production is by award-winning designer Wilhelm Disbergen.
Tickets range from R150 to R495 with concessions for pensioners, scholars and block bookings of 10 or more. The Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra will accompany selected performances. Book through Computicket on 0861 915 8000 at www.computicket.com or at any Shoprite Checkers outlet.