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Pirouettes Under The African Sky

Published 9 years ago
By Forbes Africa

The South African Ballet was founded in 2001 by former members of the defunct State Theater Ballet, one of these dancers was Dirk Badenhorst. The company opened with a season of Giselle, which was performed at the State Theatre, in Pretoria. After some success, it was invited to perform in Russia, the first South African company to do so.

Badenhorst left the SABT because he wanted to explore and felt stifled.

“We started [the] South African Ballet Theater as an entrepreneurship… These young dancers that we train in South Africa need to be brought up with the idea that ‘I can create my own company. I can create my own work. I can create my own opportunities,” he says.

Giselle – First Act

In 2008, he cofounded Mzansi Productions—a classically based contemporary dance company—with Esther Nasser. That same year, he began the International Ballet Competition Gala, taking place every second year and bringing together dancers from across the world.

The SABT and Mzansi Production merged this year to form The South African Mzansi Ballet, (SAMB), of which Badenhorst is CEO. The new company will still perform the classics but will expand its offering to create a wider appeal. It’s a question of evolving to be more contemporary and relevant to an African audience.

Although Badenhorst enjoyed a dance career both in South Africa and abroad, he confesses to never being a fantastic ballet dancer, but has a passion for the art.

To most, ballet is an escape to worlds and times imagined. Not just for the audience but for the dancers themselves. Giselle is a great example. The first act is fun, flirtatious, colorful and light but then the second act transports you to a somber, whimsical, yet still romantic place as Myrtha—the Queen of the Wilis—dances onto the stage. You become transfixed not only by the story but by the amazing ways the dancers’ bodies move, their ability to be strong and graceful at the same time. It’s a beauty like no other.

A ballet patron and former first lady of South Africa, Zanele Mbeki, says it makes her feel as if her soul leaves her body and joins the dancers on stage.

“Ballet is inspirational and aspirational,” says Badenhorst.

The SAMB brought in Michaela DePrince to make her professional debut in its production of Le Corsaire, at the Jo’burg Theater in July. DePrince, from Sierra Leone, was adopted from a refugee camp after her orphanage was bombed. Her father was killed by rebels and her mother died of starvation. Despite this, she held onto the dream of being a ballerina, after seeing one on the cover of a magazine outside the orphanage; she carried the picture to her new home in the States. Once labeled a “devil child” by the care givers at the orphanage, DePrince is now a wonder child.

SABT/Air Products Development School, Alexander

One of the reasons a merger between the SABT and Mzansi Productions made sense, was because it meant pooling the limited funds. The National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund has been a great supporter of ballet in South Africa. The fund gives to non-profit organizations and is legally required to spend 95% of its money on three sectors—including arts, culture and national heritage.

There seems to be competition between classical and contemporary dance and Badenhorst thinks there shouldn’t be, since the audiences are so different. The competition lies in the fact that both disciplines go after the same pot of money.

“When you are fighting for survival, then people find it hard to share,” he says.

Badenhorst feels that the problem of funding hampers the growth of the industry. The South African ballet companies, according to him, are not on par with the rest of the world on a national level. Despite this he thinks that South African dancers have more passion and hunger.

“When a dancer in South Africa gets to a certain level, in South Africa, we lose them to overseas companies because we can’t pay them what they can. We don’t have the stability in South Africa that they have.”

Badenhorst agrees that there is less support from the South African government compared to international companies and their governments. It seems that the new South African government still hasn’t moved away from the notion that this is an art for whites which was generously supported by the apartheid government. In 1994, South Africa’s central government issued a notice ceasing all funding to performing companies. At the time of going to press the South African government had not responded to questions from FORBES AFRICA.

It was once written that South Africans criticized ballet for being “a cost-intensive, Eurocentric art form that has no place in an African country”.

Badenhorst notes that while the elitism of the art in the past was racial, it’s now about talent. He compares it to an Olympic sport.

Despite this racial criticism, companies and schools have created programs targeting disadvantaged children in poor areas. The SAMB has about 500 young ballet dancers enrolled in its program. The Cape Town City Ballet’s (CTCB) Outreach, Audience & Development Training program has reached 310,000 people in the last 15 years.

“When you go to the township and work with the young kids and you see what it does on their ability of experiencing themselves, on understanding their bodies… on their imagination development, then I also understand why I’m doing what I’m doing,” Badenhorst reflects.

Ballet in South African townships can be traced back to the work done by the late David Poole in the 1980s, in Cape Town. Poole was a former ballet master and artistic director of the CTCB, after an international dancing career. Former principal dancer, Philip Boyd carried on this legacy with ballet classes in Gugulethu, Cape Town—back in 1991. Boyd’s Dance for All has been around for more than 20 years and now offers training in diverse dance styles in 2 more townships.

A British charity began giving ballet lessons to children in the slums of Nairobi, to keep them off the streets.

In Africa, children are most likely to be pushed into careers that are thought to pay more or carry more prestige—like being a doctor, lawyer or footballer—rather than ballet.

Ballet requires a lot of commitment and focus in order to excel. Andile Ndlovu is a South African ballet dancer who’s been dancing since the age of 10 and is in his third season with The Washington Ballet. It’s hours of work from an early age and Badenhorst believes that aspiring professional dancers need to be ready to enter a company at the age of 16.

It’s not cheap either. The running cost of a performing company, a year, is around $1.4 million. This money can be gathered through ticket sales, private business and the government—if its lucky.

The SAMB has 60 permanent staff members, including dancers, and employs almost as many temporary staff in season. This art form from the old age European aristocrats may have made its way to the “African bush” but it fails to enjoy the same popularity—leading to companies facing financial strain.

Only a few years ago, the SABT sent out an appeal for funding. Badenhorst, who was not with the company at the time, says that the companies need to be more frugal, cut down on staff and change their models to fit the environment. By 2010, the company had raised $793,000, a sure sign that ballet in Africa is not dead.

For years, Badenhorst has formed a mutually beneficial relationship with the National Ballet of Cuba. The international company is performing abstracts from its best work in South Africa and has included South African dancers, like Kitty Phetla, in the show.

Phetla became the first black ballerina to perform in Russia in her role as The Dying Swan.

Badenhorst’s parting words: “We have to go back and we have to not see it [ballet] as an expense, but as an investment”.

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Related Topics: #Art, #Ballet, #dancing, #Plays, #September 2012, #Stage, #State Theater.