SA dance superstars in the making

Warming up: Joburg Ballet lead dancers Ramiro Samon and Shannon Glover before a performance of Coppélia. (Paul Botes)

Warming up: Joburg Ballet lead dancers Ramiro Samon and Shannon Glover before a performance of Coppélia. (Paul Botes)

As children, movement is a method of pre-verbal communication, our bodies forming words long before our mouths know how. We continue to grow with an understanding of movement that resides deep within our bodies.

In dance, it sits just below the flesh, close enough to touch. It is known as muscle memory – the physical result of repeating an action so often that eventually that movement becomes an unconscious kinetic effort. For dancers, muscle memory frees the practice from the performance of thinking, allowing their bodies the room to dance detached from the weight of thought.

It is here, within the bodies of our own celebrated ballet practitioners, that we encounter an archive of ballet in South Africa’s muscle memory.

With a little massaging, the calves of the great Yvonne Mounsey would recall the hand of prolific choreographer George Balanchine in their first performance of Swan Lake in 1951.
It was this repertoire that built the New York City Ballet.

She later returned, as Yvonne Leibrandt, to her farm near Pretoria where she and Faith de Villiers established the Johannesburg City Ballet, which would grow to become the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal, or Pact, as we remember it.

Ballet’s young history in South Africa can be celebrated with a retelling of its international achievements. But, as with most imported disciplines, its future is not necessarily dictated by the country from which it was appropriated but rather by the people who practise the art in that particular country.

At the Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein, Joburg Ballet is an experimental microcosm of possibility that is taking this medium on a new path – one that was perpetuated by China under Mao, Russia under Stalin and most recently Cuba under Castro.

Joburg Ballet, formerly the South African Ballet Theatre, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Its chief executive, Dirk Badenhorst, the tour de force of the global dance arena, has led the company with flair, ingenuity, an uncanny sense for what tastes drive the local audience and a skill for fundraising.

Currently, the ballet company employs 50 full-time staff, eight of whom are Cuban. At a recent meeting with him, we discussed the expanding presence of Cuba in the ranks of the company.

It was my understanding that, pragmatically, a lack of strong male leads has historically required that a small ballet company employs international artists. But when Badenhorst dropped Castro into the conversation, it became clear that my understanding of the change happening at the company was running miles ahead of me.

“For the last 50 years, Fidel Castro has given generously to train and develop a ballet company that is now one of the most sought-after companies in the world – a system that kept kids off the street and generates young talent. It is his contribution that created a people in Cuba that have a true appreciation for the arts, which places not only a monetary value on somebody but [also] gives them a personal value.”

Cuban dancers are not like the Italians, or the Russians for that matter. Physically they are smaller, they have bigger bums and shorter legs, which means they are closer to the ground and thus have quicker movements.

Alicia Alonso, the founder of the Cuban National Ballet, saw the need to craft the training of her dancers to their bodies. Much like Agrippina Vaganova, the founder of the Russian classical style, Alonso believes, unlike the Italians, that movement originates from the body and not the appendages.

The Cuban method takes both the dominant styles, Russian and Italian, and combines them into a more sensual and passionate expression tailored to the temperament and flair of the Cubans.

It seems that, to create a truly South African ballet style, for now at least, one should begin with the African body. The Cuban method presents itself as a solution to developing what could hopefully become our own South African method.

The Gauteng department of education has understood the promise of this kind of specialised training and, in an effort to extend the reach of the ballet company’s outreach programme, which teaches more than 500 students a year for free, has assisted the company to get into the poorest schools in Johannesburg.

Through talks and demonstrations, it has opened the door to an audience for whom ballet is a fantasy as foreign as the fairy tales used to tell their stories.

The transformation to create a company that really represents South Africa is, however, a process that can only take place at its own pace. For Kitty Phetla, the company’s celebrated lead, the rate of transformation still seems like a long road. “Our country has come a very long way,” she says. “Being a black ballerina, for one, should show you just how far we have come.

“That said, it’s been a long time coming. Sixty percent of the kids in Coppelia [the production staged in March this year] were black, which should hopefully make it accessible to a new audience. We’re trying to make it tangible to the local community to show that it’s not just a Westernised art, that it’s an art for everybody.

“I don’t think we can make the transformation happen quicker. I think we need to stick to our guns and push the outreach further. It’s all well and good to approach black youngsters to take part in the productions but, at the same time, you need to ask how long the interest is going to stay prominent in the life of a young child that faces their own set of issues.

“I know with myself that I probably would never have stayed interested in the art if I didn’t have a mentor that focused just on me and kept me interested in the art.”

This sentiment existed at the start of ballet in most of the great nations. Large-scale government initiatives are responsible for having created great academies that, in turn, began to train dancers from the time they could walk. Children with good pliable bodies, dedication and the feet to make it were hand-picked from their own outreach programmes and were shaped and moulded to become the future leaders in the national companies. It’s what built ballet legends such as Cunxin, Nureyev and Taglioni.

The development of South Africa’s own dance superstars needs to become a national project. Although there are a few with the blinding dedication to make it all the way to the top, there are as many who get lost along the way.

Trying to understand the language of dance can be a lot like trying to follow a conversation without fully comprehending all the words. Yet great dancers are able to communicate the sublimity of a wide range of human emotions seemingly without effort.

And it is this art, honed by years of punishing practice, that has the ability to thrill balletomanes time and time again.

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