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Taking the leap from ballet to opera

INNOVATIVE: Choreographer Joshua Beamish has worked on The Magic Flute and will perform at the Baxter on October 14 and 15.

INNOVATIVE: Choreographer Joshua Beamish has worked on The Magic Flute and will perform at the Baxter on October 14 and 15.

Published Sep 26, 2016


A CALORIE- laden chocolate tart, missing one single bite, sits on the desk in front of Canadian choreographer Joshua Beamish. Not the usual dancers’ diet, I observe. Beamish agrees but says that he just fancied something sweet, adding “I’ll probably just eat half today and the rest tomorrow.”

The ability to resist scoffing an entire cake at once is indicative of the discipline that has contributed to this 29 year old’s impressive career. His works have already been performed by companies ranging from the Toronto Dance Theatre and the National Ballet of Canada’s YOU dance to Compania Nacional de Danza de Mexico and by New York City Ballet superstar Wendy Whelan.

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Beamish’s mother was a ballet teacher and he grew up in a studio. Thinking that a boy might enjoy the noise of tap his mother introduced him to the energetic dance at age three. From tap, Beamish went on to explore the entire lexicon of dance, from Highland fling to hip-hop which he discovered at age 13 with Amanda Klotz, a native of Osoyoos, which is a town nearby Kelowna in British Columbia, the small community where Joshua was raised. Amanda now has a dance studio, Gift of Dance, in Durbanville.

At age 17 Beamish had created his own dance company MoveTheCompany, now considered one of Canada’s most respected arts establishments.

Despite the various dance styles that he has explored, ballet is his daily discipline: “There’s no other style that warms up my body as well.” he explains.

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Now Beamish is adding opera to his curriculum and working as a choreographer on Cape Town Opera and the UCT Opera school’s production of Mozart’s masterpiece The Magic Flute, directed by Mathew Wild. After meeting five years ago in Europe, Beamish saw Matthew’s productions of The Orange Earth and The Rocky Horror Show on past trips to Cape Town and recalls, “Immediately I connected with his vision and aesthetic choices.”

Beamish was booked to come to Cape Town to perform his work, Concerto, at the Baxter’s Dance Festival and was able to schedule several weeks’ rehearsal with the cast of The Magic Flute.

This does not mean however, that Pamina and Tamino will dance a pas de deux. In fact, there are no set dance pieces in Flute; rather he’s working on refining the cast’s awareness of their physicality.

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Beamish explains, “My role is much more about giving the singers tools for presenting themselves with greater physical confidence and clarity. I’m asking them to become much more aware of their every movement choice, no matter how small or negligible the act may initially seem.”

Take for example, raising the arm, an opera singer’s stock in trade gesture. A kinetic stream of energy pulses along Beamish’s arm as he demonstrates a way of moving the arm that is akin to a bird unfurling its wing. He explains that the arm is not a single joint, from shoulder to finger, but a multitude of joints, capable of rich and complex articulation.

Beamish is building a unique vocabulary of actions for each character in The Magic Flute, in particular the Queen of the Night and the three ladies. Singer S’bongile Mntambo plays the second lady. A star on the rise, Mntambo recently won the Amazwi Omzanzi Singing Competition, held in Durban. The Magic Flute is her first principal opera role. Mntambo spent an entire lesson with Beamish learning just one single gesture and says that the coaching has been invaluable. “In productions, we don’t just stand there and sing, we have to have a sense of how to move on stage.”

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Working with an accomplished choreographer was an entirely new experience for Mntambo. She says, “Joshua’s so patient and makes it easy for you to follow.” Mntambo was not only full of praise for Beamish’s teaching. Flashing a winning smile, she confided, “I know this is off topic, but he’s so handsome.”

So how does Beamish, who is used to creating on The Royal Ballet dancers in London, find working with artists who have no dance training? He says, “To me everything is relative.”

He explains that when he’s working with The Royal Ballet he’s aiming for something complex whereas, with the cast of The Magic Flute he is hoping for subtle changes that will result in a more polished performance. Beamish says that he is delighted with the singers’ progress. “They’re doing really well. I can already see major changes in their posture.”

Currently Beamish is rehabilitating from a flare up of an old injury that he incurred in 2011 when he fractured his ankle after demonstrating a jump. He has a couple of weeks to recover before his next performance when he returns to the Baxter to dance his solo work Concerto, performed to JS Bach’s Concerto for Violin, Oboe, and Strings in D Minor. Concerto premiered, to rave reviews, in Victoria BC in July. Beamish first performed at the Baxter in 2013 when he made a guest appearance and performed his work Pierced to rapturous applause.

Despite being a highly accomplished dancer, Beamish is more interested in creating than performing. And although Beamish rates presenting his work at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre in as a career highlight, his most satisfying experience was leading the TELUS Youth Mentor Project, which selected 16 of British Columbia’s most talented young dance artists, age 12-16, to participate in a process of creating their own choreography. The results, he says, rival the innovation of some of his professional peers. “I love encouraging young people to take responsibility for their own path.”

For the past 17 years, CTO has mounted two productions annually with UCT Opera School and the UCT Symphony Orchestra. This year, however, the movement by university students across the country, including some students at SACM, has resulted in the need to postpone the opening of The Magic Flute. The new dates will be announced as soon as possible.

l Beamish performs on October 14 and 15 as part of the Baxter’s 12th annual dance festival, 0861 915 8000.

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