Cultural diplomacy in a tutu…

What's On - Joburg

Not since Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem re-opened the Johannesburg Civic Theatre in 1992, is so much expectation fuelled by an iconic ballet company that is couched in political and dance history.

Post 1994 (and several cultural delegations to Havana) there have been many rumours about the iconic Alicia Alonso and her famous company National Ballet of Cuba (NBC) setting our stages alight with their renowned virtuosity.

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La Prima Ballerina Assoluta Alicia Alonso,  directora del Ballet Nacional de Cuba, se dirigio a la prensa nacional y extranjera para hacer publica una carta dirigida a los intelectuales y artistas norteamericanos, hoy 26 de Octubre de 2007, en el  Museo Nacional de la Danza, en la capital cubana.   AIN FOTO/Marcelino VAZQUEZ HDEZ.

Then, in 2008, ballet activist Dirk Badenhorst began visiting Cuba and setting up a mini shuttle of dance education that has trickled into his Mzansi Productions’ modus operandi. Cuban teachers from the revered national school appeared in Centurion where the company was then based.

Then young Cuban students and graduates started igniting the stage in shows at the Cape Town International Ballet Competitions and Mzansi seasons.

The exchange peaked last year with Badenhorst’s International Ballet galas in Cape Town and Joburg and Mzansi’s staging of Don Quixote, in Joburg and in Durban.

That relationship with Cuban dancers and teachers continues even after the merger of Mzansi Productions with SA Ballet Theatre to become the SA Mzansi Ballet.

Significantly, The SA Mzansi Ballet Cuban School, using Cuban training methodology, was established at the Dance Factory in Newtown in June.

Then advertisements, bearing the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) logo, started to appear in newspapers announcing that Mzansi Productions presents the National Ballet of Cuba’s The Magic of the Dance at the Montecasino Teatro.

Badenhorst explains: “I started talking to Alicia Alonso in 2008 about the company coming to South Africa as part of my plan to establish the Cuban presence in South Africa.

“Subsequently, I have been asked via the Cuban Embassy in South Africa – my initial contact in South Africa – whether I would be able to have a performance dedicated to the ANC centenary celebrations in Bloemfontein on September 24. I have been working with the embassy and DAC on producing this tour which ends with this performance.”

And funding? “There is some DAC involvement but, as far as I know, the tour will be largely funded by the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund. I think for South African ballet and dance companies this tour could bring a greater under-standing for the value of the arts in diplomacy.

“Artistically it showcases the impact of government support for the arts in its development.”

The 46 NBC dancers will perform extracts from seven classics. Adding to the cachet of this visit, will be the presence, at the Joburg premiere, of co- founder and current director Alonso.

Born in Havana on December 21, 1920, her career as an artist spans two centuries.

Alonso, who danced in New York with Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) until 1960, persevered despite dealing with deteriorating sight since she was 19 years old and a political revolution.

Since 1948 the company, and subsequently its legendary ballet school, has championed the role of classical ballet and dance as a profession and educational tool to become part of Cuba’s socialist fabric.

Her last stage performance may have been in 1995, aged 75, but the prima ballerina is still dancing Carmen and Giselle on YouTube.

An ongoing NBC-RSA connection exists between dance photographer Nan Melville, who first visited Havana in the early 1990s, resulting in the historic photographic exhibition Alicia Alonso, and Ballet Nacional de Cuba, shown at the Dance Collection at the New York Public Library in 1992.

The NBC, last seen in London in 2010, staged Swan Lake in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, in April.

This is its first appearance in sub-Saharan Africa where it promises to dance into the history books with characteristic verve.

• The Magic of the Dance tour: Joburg: Montecasino Teatro, August 30 to September 2.

Angola (by invitation of the Angolan government): September 4 to 8.

Cape Town: Artscape, September 13 to 16.

Durban: The Playhouse, September 19.

Bloemfontein: ANC centenary celebrations, Sand du Plessis Theatre, September 24.

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