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It takes a very special teacher and artistic visionary to connect – and reunite – four generations of South African dancers across cultures, aesthetic expression and performance styles.
That person is dance pioneer and Free Flight Dance Company founder Adele Blank.
Her life’s work was honoured in three performances of Blank Page – a tribute to the work of Adele Blank at Dance Umbrella last week.
More than 40 dancers from the past and the present featured in new pieces or revivals of signature works.
Throughout her career the Joburg-born and ballet-trained dancer, who danced with the Johannesburg City Ballet and only discovered modern dance when she was a 23-year-old wife and mother, has championed technical virtuosity underscored by musical exuberance.
Her colour-blind philosophy and cultural activism (with Dance Alliance and other avenues) during apartheid empowered many a dancer, particularly township males, who benefited from her teaching expertise, choreographic dynamism and motherly concern.
At 71 years old Adele – as she is lovingly known by young and old – still actively teaches across communities and disciplines in Cape Town where she and her 26-year-old dance company have been based since moving from Joburg in 2000.
Her daughter and Free Flight stalwart Natalie Fisher hatched the idea of paying homage to her mother’s on-going legacy in the form of a production which brought together past and present dancers.
MC-d by ex-Free Flighter Simon Rowe, who is based in the Netherlands, this roller-coaster of reminiscence and nostalgia on the freshly revamped Market Theatre main stage provided a glimpse into a chapter of our dance history.
The show, a rambling memoir with archival footage, significantly featured solo dedications from Nelisiwe Xaba (a trustee of The Adele Blank Free Flight Trust launched on the first night) performing images from her Venus solos; Mamela Nyamza bourree-ing on pointes as Adele unravelled the dancer’s cotton head piece (which her mentor had knitted) and an intensely eloquent solo by Belinda Nusser (who flew in from Sweden) created for her by Nelson Rodriquez-Smith.
Guest B Boy Duane Lawrence and singer-musician Mapumbo Cilombo further enhanced the Free Flight signature.
Skeins of Adele Blank’s personal and professional life untwined performed by dancers trained by institutions including Ballet Theatre Afrikan, Jazzart Dance Theatre, and the Pretoria Technikon Dance Department.
A glimpse of the future was provided with hoops by the gifted Phelelani Remember Ndakrokra, 17, from Zip Zap Circus and Sannette van der Mescht’s ballet pupils Tania Mteto and Micheline Thomas.
Former Free Flighter Kelsey Middleton’s K.Mad.Com paid homage with an excerpt from Free Flight Free To Be, the late 1980s work that gave the company its name. The veteran dancer (with two hip replacements) joined her daughter Natalie, Yolandi Olckers, Kristin Wilson, Adelaide-based Lisa Lonero, Yarisha Singh and Noni Makathini in the soulful Women’s Piece.
There were two special guests in the finale – Sipho Hotstix Mabuse (for whom Adele choreographed the music video for Shikisha in the 1980s) and her five-year-old grandson Lupemba Cilombo Fisher who joined scores of now middle-aged Free Flighters who let rip with Suite on Bob.
Blank Page, which only gelled at the second performance, provided insight into Adele Blank’s choreographic approach in the past decade. Her trademark high legs and high energy have been infused with a more organic, grounded, ethos.
Free Flight’s slogan “We don’t talk, we dance” may have been interpreted as an apolitical stance, but it obscured the fact that who was, and is, dancing together from which part of town, across the racial and economic divides, is the true power of Adele Blank’s legacy.