Mzansi Ballet retells Renaissance stories for SA

Onstage pirouettes, jetes and turnouts are still very much a foreign concept for most Africans, but the South African Mzansi Ballet wants to change that.

At the company's studios in Johannesburg's gritty but increasingly bohemian downtown, dancers are put through their paces by a diminutive Cuban instructor, shouting instruction in French.

"People are beginning to see the value of ballet … slowly. The future is exciting," said chief executive Dirk Badenhorst, who believes he sees the first green shoots of change.

The Mzansi Ballet is not South Africa's first company by a long shot, nor, perhaps, its most illustrious.

The Cape Town City Ballet has been running in some form since 1934 and for three decades was home to legendary prima ballerina assoluta Phyllis Spira.

The late, great Margot Fonteyn was once a guest artist there.

Apart from training 24 full-time dancers who stage classical performances like Giselle, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty, the Mzansi Ballet focuses on unearthing untapped talent in underprivileged parts of the city.

"We are fertilising the ground for new talent to blossom," said Badenhorst.

Youngsters in townships such as Soweto, Alexandra and Sophiatown now have a shot at a performance art long seen as the preserve of the privileged.

"Hopefully these children will rise through the ranks and become our stars of tomorrow," said Badenhorst.

But a lot needs to be done, and funding is a constant problem.

The Mzansi Ballet was born one year ago out of a merger between two cash-strapped operations, the South African Ballet Theatre and Mzansi Productions.

In June, the company was thrown an R8-million lifeline by the city of Johannesburg.

"It's encouraging that the government is now beginning to take notice of our work," Badenhorst said.

"We don't need to keep on surviving, we need to thrive."

He believes that a nation's level of development can be judged by its attitude to the arts.

He hopes that South Africa would learn from Russia, its partner in the Brics grouping of five large fast-growing economies, about the importance of dance.

​The company must also overcome notions that ballet is "un-African" or at least an unwanted cultural import.

"I believe that we need to begin to tell our own stories, our own African fairytales. As Africans we've got so much wonderful stories," Badenhorst said.

In 2008, a forerunner of the Mzansi Ballet gave an African twist to The Nutcracker classic, replacing the winter theme with the sun, Kalahari sand dunes and baobab trees.

"The response was amazing," enthused Badenhorst. "We need to tell more of our African stories, and take them to the world."

Badenhorst recalled an event where the company set up a stage in a football field in a Johannesburg township, drawing a large crowd.

"I understand that we have to make the most of the facilities already in place and not wait for magnificent theatres," said Badenhorst.

"The talent is definitely there, but it needs support. We are doing our bit," he said. – Sapa

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Guest Author

Related stories

Dancing out of the maelstrom: Mo Laudi rejigs ‘Afro Bolero’

The South African DJ and producer worked with Philipe Cohen Solal on ‘Afro Bolero’, a pan-African collaboration

The art of the virtual experience

The live magic may be gone, but the National Arts Festival showcases some exhilarating work

Review: ‘Swan Song’, a brutally vulnerable performance

Buhle Ngaba’s ‘Swan Song’, showing online at the virtual National Arts Festival, explores the rawness of heartbreak, and of life

Dancer and queer rights activist Kirvan Fortuin’s final farewell

The slain dancer and choreographer was so much more than an internationally celebrated artist. They were also a proud queer rights activist and a beloved child and friend

Get your quarantine on — the best in virtual entertainment

With everyone settling into an indoors routine or starting to lose it because of cabin fever, this guide should remind you that creativity and beauty still exist, virtually represented but there, nonetheless.

Slice of life: I’m a  ‘neguinho’  who is really good

'I don’t blame them, really, because doing ballet — especially for men — is not really part of our culture'

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

Hawks swoop down with more arrests in R1.4-billion corruption blitz

The spate of arrests for corruption continues apace in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.

Catholic NGO boss accused of racism and abuse in Sudan

The aid worker allegedly called his security guard a ‘slave’

Agrizzi too ill to be treated at Bara?

The alleged crook’s “health emergency” — if that is what it is — shows up the flaws, either in our health system or in our leadership as a whole

SANDF hid R200m expenditure on ‘Covid’ drug it can’t use

Military health officials are puzzled by the defence department importing a drug that has not been approved for treating coronavirus symptoms from Cuba

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday