When Cape Town City Ballet CEO Professor Elizabeth Triegaardt regally stepped into the lunchtime crowd in a shopping plaza to introduce her dancers and beloved art form it was quite clear that South African ballet is in survival mode.
Weeks before this second performance of the company’s Invasion at the Africa Centre’s Infecting the City Public Arts Festival in Cape Town, a joint media release in Johannesburg signalled a similar message.
It announced the proposed merger between The South African Ballet Theatre (SABT) – formed in 2001 by dancers after the closure of the State Theatre Ballet – and Mzansi Productions, a classically based contemporary dance company co-founded in 2008 by Dirk Badenhorst (an ex SABT co-founder) and Esther Nasser.
The gist of this move was that both boards had decided to pool their National Lottery Distribution Trust funding and resources. The stated intention is to create a company which “will be classically-based but capable of embracing a range of techniques, among them contemporary dance and African dance genres, to ensure wider accessibility and to appeal to a broader range of audience preferences”.
Then there was relative official silence. A combined Giselle was in the pipeline but the rumour mill suggested that the merger had stalled, even collapsed.
Then on April 2 an announcement bearing both companies’ logos presented the casting for the co-produced Giselle which “marks the next stage in the merger” which will “bring together Johannesburg’s two professional ballet and dance companies in a partnership intended to share skills, consolidate resources and strengthen funding initiatives and is aimed at securing a stronger foundation for the growth of SA ballet and dance.”
Another concrete step in this delicate courtship is that next Monday Badenhorst and his Mzansi staff move from their Dance Factory offices in Newtown to the SABT Joburg Theatre home in Braamfontein. Badenhorst (back in the studios he left in September 2006) will be CEO, working side by side with artistic director Iain McDonald.
Two ballet mistresses are hard at work on Giselle: SABT’s Lauren Dixon-Seager on the corps de ballet and Mzansi’s Angela Malan on the principals.
There’s a lot at stake in this undertaking, which is in line with restructuring of major international ballet companies focusing on financial realities twinned with artist leadership. History is a major player in this scenario.
Had the State Theatre Ballet (originally Pact Ballet) survived, it would be celebrating its 50th birthday in 2013. This city and province’s ballet lineage goes even further back to the pioneering teachers from the 1930s, Marjorie Sturman’s Johannesburg Festival Ballet Society, the Johannesburg City Ballet and Ballet Transvaal (the precursors of Pact Ballet).
These heritage tentacles intertwine with CTCB which springs from the founding of the UCT Ballet School by Dulcie Howes in 1934, giving birth to tertiary training and professional theatre dance in this country.
So how did this latest chapter in Joburg begin? After the high-profile 2011 success of Mzansi’s Cape Town International Ballet Competition Gala, which packed the Montecasino Teatro, and a full length Don Quixote at the Playhouse in Durban, and the Lyric Theatre at Gold Reef City, Badenhorst says he was approached by James Campbell, vice-chairman of the SABT Board.
An obvious drawcard was his carefully nurtured relationship with the National Ballet School of Cuba, whose teachers, students and graduates have been igniting audiences and professionals with their technique and theatricality.
Taking to the Mandela stage this very weekend are six Cuban guest dancers, four of whom are serving their social service here as payback for their free training in Havana.
A final quote from the CEO: “It’s a wonderful time with this merger, but you show me anyone who is completely confident with it, and you’re lying. There’s no good practice to follow.”
Uncharted territory, indeed. Is this a marriage of convenience, expedience or of soulmates? Time (and the box office) will tell.
South African Ballet Theatre and Mzansi Productions’ Giselle runs at the Joburg Theatre from Thursday to April 29. Tickets: R50 to R32. Booking: 0861 670 670 or www.joburgtheatre.com
Cape Town City Ballet’s Giselle is at the Artscape Opera House from Friday to April 22.
From May 2-13 CTCB brings Robin van Wyk’s Night & Day – A Cole Porter Ballet to Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre.