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NEVER underestimate the staying power of ballet dancers. On Thursday night not only did a new chapter in SA ballet history open, with the launch of the SA Mzansi Ballet (SAMB) company, but a ballerina-in-the making emerged on the continent of her birth.
Nowadays anyone dressed in a tutu and a tiara is a ballerina when this status has to be achieved through ability and artistry.
Michaela DePrince, who appeared for three performances of Le Corsaire, which launched the merged entity of SA Ballet Theatre and Mzansi Productions, may only be 17, but this Sierra Leone-born and US-trained dancer has the required virtuosity to conquer the role of Gulnare, the slave girl.
Yes, slave girl. How ironic is that!
But the girl who was born as Mabinty Bangura in a war zone can overcome any obstacle, or stigma, as vividly depicted in Bess Kargman’s remarkable dance film, First Position.
Making her professional stage debut in a major role, the petite DePrince proved that she has a vibrant stage intelligence and musicality that ignites her dancing – magnifying every step and ultra-elastic extension.
Her interpretation of Gulnare was not just about technique, which happens to be showy without being ostentatious. Most impressive was her silken composure, which unleashed firecracker grand jetés and effortless balances.
The inspirational young guest, who joins Dance Theatre of Harlem in two weeks’ time, was sharing the stage with accomplished artists the calibre of sublime SAMB ballerina Bernice Silvius, in the major principal role of Medora, and the technically suave Michael Revie (back on stage after yet another retirement) as Conrad the Pirate.
DePrince was partnered by SA dancer Andile Ndlovu guesting from The Washington Ballet.
On opening night Ndlovu’s Lankedem the slave trader was lacklustre and tentative. The true measure of this evolving young artist was his Ali, the slave, who soared with accomplishment,
On launch night the future and the past meshed on the stage, and in the auditorium, as decades of expertise, professionalism and history joined forces to celebrate what was about to be.
The R1 000-a-ticket gala strategy (which failed to draw a full house) paid off as pledges rolled in, adding up to R3 million with R1.4m for this year, R800 000 for next year and R800 000 for 2014. The annual bill is R12m.
On stage, patron Mary Slack (who together with her daughters pledged R300 000 a year until 2014) remarked on the “extraordinary vision and sense” of the joint venture’s artistic director, Iain MacDonald, and CEO, Dirk Badenhorst.
Her fellow patron, former Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni, matched Slack’s contribution.
It was only in Act 2, and specifically the Pasha’s dream, that this production really measured up to the promises to keep the professional theatre art form of ballet alive.
Impeccably staged by producer Angela Malan (another veteran who hasn’t hung up her pointe shoes, earning bravas all the way for her Medora at the Saturday matinee), this two-act ballet is in the grand tradition and is politically problematic.
The stage is littered with throat-slitting pirates, slaves (suffering in chiffon), slave traders, romanticised victimised young women and pistol shots.
Forget that lurid narrative (inspired by Lord Byron’s poem), focus on the intricate choreography (after Petipa with additional choreography by Malan and MacDonald), and escapism, awash with balletic frou frou, wins.
This staging is richly framed by designer Andrew Botha’s Moroccan fantasy world.
SA Mzansi Ballet’s future rests on developing sustained excellence, an appealing repertory and ingenious touches such as the African premiere of First Position on Sunday morning.
This screening was followed by a brief Q&A with DePrince, who spoke about how a magazine image of a ballerina “was my hope, my future and made me survive”.
The Joburg audience rose to its feet to acknowledge her feat.
Le Corsaire is showing in The Mandela at the Joburg Theatre from Friday to Sunday. Tickets: R180 to R320. Book as below.
See First Position in The Mandela tonight at 7.30pm. Tickets cost R100.
Book by calling 0861 670 670 or see www.joburgtheatre.com