The arrival of Geneva Ballet (Grand Théâtre de Genève) in Johannesburg is set to thrill the city’s dance lovers. Under the direction of Philippe Cohen – who has headed the dance company since 2003 and understands South African choreography – Geneva Ballet will perform the classical ballet of Shakespeare’s tragedy Roméo and Juliette and interact with some of South Africa’s hottest choreographers to create a new show, called High Five.
This collaborative work will bring together renowned South African choreographers Gregory Maqoma, Fana Tshabalala, PJ Sabbagha and Mamela Nyamza, as well as Swiss choreographer Nathanaël Marie.
Geneva Ballet, which was established at the end of the 19th century, is a dance company that specialises in neoclassical and contemporary styles, and is generally more modern and outrageous in its repertoire than the more conservative classical dance companies.
The company first visited South Africa in 2014, when it performed at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. This is when conversations about coming to Johannesburg started, and it is roughly when the idea of High Five was born – a collaborative choreographic project between South African dancer-choreographers and their Swiss counterparts.
Choreographer Nathanaël Marie at work on his High Five contribution with South African and Swiss dancers.
Although High Five will act as a teaser of sorts to the Roméo and Juliette season, it is a brand-new, standalone work. The dancers and choreographers – who have been in intense workshops ahead of the opening – are seasoned and the work itself will be extremely challenging.
“The entire Geneva Ballet will take part in High Five,” says Geneva-born Philippe Olza, who has cast a blazing path in the industry over the past 35 years, developing from a circus performer into a dancer and choreographer and eventually becoming an artistic consultant.
“I am the one who puts it all together,” he says. “I’m not an agent, nor a producer, but my mandate from different companies is to be the go-to guy on big projects such as this and to do everything from finding funds to booking venues. Effectively I am the person who opens new marketplaces.” But, he adds with a laugh: “This is one market that makes no money!”
Olza describes the High Five initiative as a bit of a melting pot: “Take 12 South African dancers, the whole Geneva ballet company – of 18 performers – and divide it into five groups. Match each group with a talented young choreographer – four South Africans: Maqoma [assisted by Luyanda Sidiya], Tshabalala, Sabbagha and Nyamza and one Swiss: Nathanaël Marie, a French born choreographer-dancer, who will also perform the role of Tybalt in Roméo and Juliette. Put each group in a separate venue with the instruction to make dance and you see what will come out of it.
“I’ve no idea how it will be,” he says, itemising the workshop venues on his fingers: the yellow and blue studios of the Soweto Theatre, Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative’s space at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), the Hillbrow Theatre and Dance Space in Newtown. “It’s about professionals working together and interacting under professional conditions. It’s about co-operation and growth and dialogue rather than something we can anticipate.”
Sabbagha, the founder of Forgotten Angle, which is based at UJ, says High Five is “about exploring relationships”. “Each work will last about eight to 12 minutes. At the showcase, all five works [from the various choreographers] will be stitched together into one piece.”
He adds: “There are no specified themes. These conversations, in voice and gesture, will take place during this week; no one can predict how they will turn out. This is a setting up of relationships, a first taster for collaborative energies between South African and Swiss dance practitioners.”
Geneva Ballet’s Cohen told the Financial Mail that his only advice to the different dance teams was to be true to their own cultures. Acknowledging his awareness that many South African dancers gravitate towards a sociopolitical theme in their output, he expressed great curiosity about what High Five will yield.
Olza adds that each of the South African choreographers has a very well-respected European profile. “Not everyone gets invited to festivals like the Fest d’Automne in Paris, or the Avignon Festival. All of these choreo-graphers – Tshabalala, Nyamza, Sabbagha, Maqoma, Sidiya – are arguably more fêted in Europe than they are in South Africa.”
He acknowledges the somewhat flimsy profile that contemporary dance has among the general public in South Africa and his awareness that contemporary dance works often struggle for funding or audiences.
“These choreographers are diplomats for this country and big news for the rest of the world. I’m not sure that South African audiences know that.”
Despite the high profile of some local dance practitioners, South African contemporary dance appears to be losing its way. February’s Dance Umbrella in Johannesburg was a case in point. This 25-year-old festival of contemporary dance saw experimental work of an anarchic and unaesthetic nature that brazenly and carelessly alienated the audience, more than ever before, in works by choreographers such as Gavin Krastin and Constanza Macras.
Will the High Five works have a longer life? “Quality has life,” Olza responds diplomatically. “We don’t know how to plot the success of a creative work, but when something is produced with care and love and quality, there’s a strong chance that it will grow beyond its roots.”
He adds that the High Five showcase is purely about dance built from scratch. “There is no décor, costumes or lighting.”
This is a factor that distinguishes High Five from Crossings, a dance initiative born in 2010 from a suggestion by French choreographer Michel Kelemenis after he took part in a residency with the Johannesburg-based company Moving Into Dance Mophatong in 2009. The initiative, which took place in Newtown, Johannesburg, in 2010 and 2011 and in Cape Town in 2013, was about enabling young choreographers and dancers from all over the world to pair up with South African practitioners to create new works within a 10-day time frame. There was also space on the Crossings platforms for experts in set, sound and lighting design to take part.
The Crossings exercise was enormously successful in many different, germinating ways, some of which were unanticipated surprises: generous and continuous collaborative conversations were started and a beautiful example of this was the acclaimed work fight, flight, feathers and ***ers, the product of several years of correspondence and long-distance collaboration between Rachel Erdos from Israel and Sunnyboy Motau from South Africa, which was presented at this year’s Dance Umbrella.
So, at this point, what audiences can expect from High Five is anyone’s guess.
But judging by the extraordinary quality of work produced by all four of the South African choreographers, not only in the past few years, but as recently as a fortnight ago – such as Maqoma’s Rain Dance that wowed Market Theatre audiences – one anticipates something wonderful and unexpected.
Will High Five, which marries tried and tested ballet with contemporary ideas, be a shot in the arm of the new energy dance audiences in South Africa need to keep them believing in the discipline? And if so, will it serve to swing the proverbial pendulum back towards highly skilled, disciplined dance created by great choreographers? Audiences will decide this. And they will vote with their bums on seats.
Roméo and Juliette is on at the Mandela, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, from June 16 to 21. visit Joburgtheatre.com.