Joburg Ballet Shannon Glover & Ruan Galdino in Carmen. Picture: Lauge Sorensen

When tenacity in the dance world is discussed, the name Esther Nasser will spring to many minds. 

Her persistent innovation in the production of dance in the past 20 years has not only furthered the careers of many dancers, dance lovers have also consistently been treated to top-notch contemporary dance productions which Nasser managed to stage against all odds. 

Now the chief executive of Joburg Ballet, Nasser speaks with great enthusiasm about the year ahead. Efforts from the company – in alliance with many dance enthusiasts elsewhere – to make ballet more representative, more relevant to a wider South Africa, and more available to a wider public, are bearing fruit. 

How does one orchestrate ballet to lose its unfortunate denotation as a white elitist art form? This ill-fated label stems from the era before the closing of the State Theatre in 2000, when ballet enjoyed the luxury of being state funded and having permanently employed members. 

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Pact Ballet and the subsequent State Theatre Ballet Company consistently drew full houses and enjoyed the support of many ballet lovers… all of whom were white. It is a pity that the political inappropriateness thereof tainted the dance form as a cultural symbol of artistic inequality. But how things have changed. 

Nasser is thrilled about the new demographic of ballet patrons. Today ballet is appreciated and supported by many black dance lovers. This transition is particularly pertinent to young black people who, having had exposure to the dance form, appreciate ballet for exactly what it is – a globally celebrated art form for everyone to enjoy.

Joburg Ballet Shannon Glover. Picture: Lauge Sorensen

Artistic director Iain MacDonald, Nasser and her chief executive predecessors have made classical ballet significantly more inclusive. Their educational programmes have reached the budding talent of many a black child from areas that are otherwise not exposed to formal dance training, such as Joburg central. These endeavours are far-reaching. 

Not only do they reach the dancers, they extend into their communities. Nasser says that their teaching initiatives are being received with remarkable support from the young dancers’ families and communities.

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Exploring ballet outside of its traditional parameters, last year’s production of Big City, Big Dreams was an invigorating fusion of ballet with a variety of African dance styles. 

It was a marvellous celebration of South African dance in which Joburg Ballet collaborated with Vuyani Dance Theatre and Moving into Dance Mophathong. The production was a resounding success – at the box office and with audiences and critics alike.  

Funding is an intrinsic part of any dance company. Since their inception, most ballet companies and contemporary dance companies have proven not to be self-sustaining enterprises. They rely on funding from governments, the private sector, or interest groups and individuals who deem the conservation of these dance forms imperative. 

Joburg Ballet Shannon Glover & Ruan Galdino in Carmen. Picture: Lauge Sorensen

Joburg Ballet is primarily funded by the City of Johannesburg and this funding will continue until 2020. The City’s buying into the company’s vision of preserving and furthering classical ballet deserves of applause. 

This year the company brings South African choreographer Veronica Paeper’s production of Carmen to Joburg Theatre for 10 performances from April 6 to 15. 

Joburg Ballet will also perform to live orchestral accompaniment for the first time in many years when the relaunched Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra takes its place in the orchestra pit, bringing to life composer Georges Bizet’s famous score. 

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Commenting on working with the company, Paeper says: “When I produced La Traviata for Joburg Ballet I found the dancers very skilled on a technical level and superbly dramatically. I’m really looking forward to re-staging Carmen and am fascinated to see what we can achieve.”

Nasser echoes the vision to continue restoring local ballet to its former glory.