Pirouetting in step with the world

There are days when members of the South African Mzansi Ballet company can be found pirouetting on a giant music box in a shopping mall. They made an appearance on stage at the launch of season eight of Big Brother. And, spectacularly, at the Swartkops Air Show in May, dressed in skimpy mango-coloured tunics, they danced a pas de deux with an aircraft.

For Dirk Badenhorst, the company’s dynamic chief executive officer, ballet isn’t a rarefied activity to be confined to studios and stages; it’s something to be taken to the public “at every possible opportunity, to share its beauty and grace”.

Badenhorst has big ideas, and they seem to work — as they did at the weekend when 25 dancers from nine different countries enchanted capacity audiences in the 1 800-seater ­Teatro at Montecasino. The occasion was a spectacular homage to Alicia Alonso, the driving force behind the National Ballet of Cuba, which has provided some of the dancers who have, again thanks to Badenhorst’s efforts, brought new life to the South African Mzansi Ballet.

It is this type of innovative thinking, combined with a major outreach programme that takes ballet lessons to 500 aspirant dancers from disadvantaged areas in four development programmes in the city, that has won the South African Mzansi Ballet an R8-million grant from the City of Johannesburg, with the suggestion that there might be more to come.

On a recent Friday morning, a group of arts journalists, ballet enthusiasts and members of the South African Mzansi Ballet board gathered in the company’s studio in the Joburg Theatre.

To the strains of Saint-Saëns, a tall figure in a dramatic black tutu bourréed across the floor, silhouetted dramatically against the Johannesburg skyline. Kitty Phetla was giving her interpretation of Mikhail Fokine’s Dying Swan. As the morning progressed it seemed to have been an ironic choice, for the reason for the assembly was to hear not about the death of ballet in Johannesburg but about its resuscitation.

The hero of the day was councillor Chris Vondo, member of the mayoral committee for community development, who stepped across the road from the council chambers to throw out a lifeline to the company.

Announcing the council’s decision, Vondo said he was “delighted to be able to bring Jo’burg’s support to this company … as a shining example of the contribution the arts can make to communities”.

“We recognise the large steps the ballet company has taken in recent years towards transformation as a performing arts company in South Africa, and also its successful outreach programmes for the youngsters of our city,” he said.

Some of those youngsters were there to illustrate just how important that outreach is as, timidly at first, but gaining confidence and clearly enraptured, they demonstrated their new skills.

Responding to Vondo, Badenhorst answered his own question — “What is the value of the ballet company in the times we live in?” — when he said that, apart from providing 70 jobs and training young dancers through the outreach programme, the company was a cultural ambassador for the city and for the country.

Next year, the company, which will by then be known either as the Johannesburg Ballet or the Johannesburg City Ballet, will take up an invitation to dance at the Kennedy Centre in Washington. But as an African ballet company, the real goals are closer to home. “We want to take ballet out into this country and further into Africa,” said Badenhorst.

Phetla said: “[The grant] means huge new beginnings for us. It means we’re one step closer to being a world-class company. South Africa has come a long way — ballet isn’t just a Western thing anymore; we are making it South African.”

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Pat Schwartz
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