Heroic ballet of an African Spartacus

African interpretation: Washington Ballet’s Brooklyn Mack in Spartacus of Africa, directed by Veronica Paeper. (Adam McConnachie)

African interpretation: Washington Ballet’s Brooklyn Mack in Spartacus of Africa, directed by Veronica Paeper. (Adam McConnachie)

It’s not difficult to see why, for her upcoming production Spartacus of Africa, Veronica Paeper chose Andile Ndlovu, now with the Washington Ballet, as one of her three principals for the tricky lead role of the defiant gladiator. “I felt it was necessary for South African audiences to be able to see this extraordinary talent” is how Paeper puts it.

Certainly during his six years in Washington the 26-year-old Sowetan has proved fully capable of rising to the technical challenges involved in mastering ballet’s physical pyrotechnics.

“My greatest assets are my artistry and my jumps” is how he modestly describes the jaw-dropping scissored jetés that in his earlier acrobatic days once landed him on the floor. “I was the lead in Don Quixote,” he says.
“I totally used too much energy and hit the floor hard. But I had to keep going. That solo was my moment to shine.”

A muscular good-looker who says he would have been a football player if he hadn’t taken up dancing, Ndlovu got into ballet at the age of 15, in spite of being relentlessly mocked. “Not many people in my community know much about ballet,” he says. “Many believe if you dance you’re gay.” He won a scholarship to study at Ballet Theatre Afrikan and was offered the Washington position after winning an ­international ballet contest.

A recent highlight was his role in Petite Mort, the provocative ballet by avant-garde Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian that uses fencing foils as phallic symbols and has the French idiom for orgasm (“little death”) as its title. Ndlovu says this sensuous piece offered the freedom of dancing in a contemporary style very different to what he’s used to.

The other two equally athletic Spartacuses are Washington Ballet’s Brooklyn Mack and Durban dazzler Casey Swales, who was chosen out of over 200 nationally auditioned professional dancers.

Meet the cast
Taking the role of Spartacus’s wife Phyrgia, along with two other locals (Elzanne Crause and Kristin Wilson), is Lara Turk, now in her eighth season with the Royal Ballet in London. Turk (32) is another Durban product, a lithe-limbed, ethereal beauty who has worked as a model in London and Paris fashion weeks and danced in venues such as the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

Happily married but dedicated and driven – “I’ve always had to leave my loved ones behind to follow my dancing dreams” – she’s excited about performing to Aram Khachaturian’s magnificent score, in particular the tender pas de deux with Spartacus after he rescues her from his captor’s harem of concubines.

“It’s an incredibly beautiful and moving adagio,” she says. “For me it’s one of the greatest gifts of this role. I can’t wait to perform it and even more special is that it will be in South Africa.”

The adagio makes a delectable change of pace amid the orgies, hand-to-hand combat and unstoppable action of this electrifying ballet. Filled with captivating rhythms and dreamy melodies, it’s the ­internationally acclaimed work of Russian-Armenian composer Khachaturian. He produced it in 1954, based on an episode from ancient history so well known that six years later Hollywood turned it into an Oscar-winning movie in which Kirk Douglas played the captive Thracian king Spartacus who, in 73BC, led a slave uprising against the Romans that was ferociously put down.

A multifaceted project
This tragic tale of people fighting for their freedom was so close to the hearts of the communists that Lenin awarded Khachaturian the People’s Artist of the Soviet Union medal, a nice reversal considering Khachaturian had once been on the culture police’s blacklist of “anti-people” musicians.

For Paeper, Spartacus’s story has echoes in Mandela’s fight for freedom and the struggles of all Africa’s oppressed people. So she’s set this heroic ballet in an imaginary African country. She’s trimmed Khachaturian’s score and introduced African drum beats into a combination of classical and contemporary choreography.

It’s a ballet she has been itching to reinvent ever since she first produced it in the 1980s. Now this exceptional South African choreographer has finally pulled it off and it’s a multifaceted project, which features a cast of more than 100 and the involvement of numerous nonballetomanes. The township women of Masiphumelele plaited thousands of recycled green plastic bags to make vines for the set and City Varsity students produced a short DVD of the production build-up for learners to watch before the special educational performances.

The whole undertaking is a bold milestone for the South African National Dance Trust, the nonprofit organisation Paeper founded with Robyn Taylor and Mike Bosazzo in 2009 to promote dance through ­performance, education and job opportunities.

Spartacus of Africa runs at the Joburg Theatre until June 14 (with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra) and at Artscape from June 27 to July 12 (with the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra).

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