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Phoenix of the Ballet: The South African Ballet Theatre's Success Story

by Kate Snedeker

Published November 2009

Even considering the current economic downturn, it’s unlikely that any other company has emerged from adversity like The South African Ballet Theatre. Eight years after rising from the ashes of the former State Ballet Theatre in Pretoria, the company is thriving, having started an Academy, founded an extensive outreach program, toured Russia, hosted co-productions with the Royal Danish Ballet, produced four full length ballets a year to sold out audiences and moved into a gorgeous studio at the new Joburg Theatre complex.

During a recent trip to South Africa, I had the great pleasure of talking with Angela Malan and Iain Macdonald, two of the founding members of the company, and the company’s publicity and publications officer, Samantha Saevitzon. Due to technical difficulties, most of Mr. Macdonald’s interview was not captured on tape, but I have included what was recorded.

Iain Macdonald (Artistic Director), a native of Johannesburg, started dancing when his primary school put on a little musical production: “I was very fortunate in primary school [that] the school was very active in performing. The music teacher [said] ‘we’re going to do a production, would anyone like to do a dance routine [for an] audition? . So I went ahead and did a little step, and she said ‘You have a little talent, and my daughter teaches - why don’t you go for some classes?.’  Brilliant! I went along and one thing led to another.

“I was fortunate because my grandfather was a classical pianist, so it was sort of in the family. I enjoyed the physicality of [ballet] and the discipline. I enjoyed my sport as well – I kept playing cricket, rugby and soccer with the other guys, so I didn’t have a problem with teasing. If the teasing did come, it was mainly from the girls when they found out. And then I auditioned and got into the National School of the Arts here across the road [from the Joburg Theatre]. One thing just led to another - I never made a conscious decision that, gosh, I want to be a dancer.”

Angela Malan, the company’s most senior principal ballerina, who was also raised in Johannesburg, started taking ballet lessons at the age of five: “My mom was South African ballroom champion – and I started ballet with a friend of hers from ballroom dancing. When I was about seven, there was a gala and I decided [ballet] wasn’t for me and consequently … did a lot of gymnastics, modern dance, and jazz. Then my jazz teacher said to me, ‘really it would be a good idea if perhaps you went back to ballet, because really you’re a lovely jazz dancer, but I think that you have [more talent in ballet].’

“And, I was good at it, did well at it and that was it. There was no turning back for me, no decisions to be made. [I] just then wanted to do ballet all the time, everywhere: in front of the TV, on the tennis court, around the swimming pool, I danced!”

There are few large [private] ballet schools in South Africa, and so, like most dancers there, Malan started dance at a local studio. “The woman who trained me, Lynne Fouché, she had a private studio which she eventually closed. It was with her that I think I got my basic training, all my good training. I spent six months at a school in Italy, and then went to the National Ballet of Canada to do a graduate program. I was there for six weeks and they gave me job - it was all very quick!

“I was just 17 when I joined [The National Ballet of Canada], and was there until I was 22.  [In 1994], I came back to South Africa and joined PACT ballet, housed at the State Theatre. Then in 2000 the government stopped all funding towards the State Theatre. The ballet company [PACT/State Theatre Ballet] was obviously a part of that, and me and six other crazy people started what is today South African Ballet Theatre!”

The ending of funding to the State Theatre in Pretoria in 2000, was a major turning point for performing arts, and in particular, ballet in South Africa. As Malan explains, “PACT was in Pretoria, and the State Theatre in Pretoria was our residence.  [The South African government] stopped all funding to the theatre, and as a result they closed the theatre. So the ballet company, a contemporary [dance] company, a full orchestra, the drama company … the opera, everything was closed.”

As Ms. Saevitzon is quick to point out, the withdrawal of funding was not a reflection on the quality of PACT or the other resident arts companies in Pretoria. Rather, as a part of the long process of emerging from apartheid, the South African government re-aligned funding priorities. In a country where even today, there are still great gaps in the provision of basic services, the government decided there was a greater need to spend money on education, housing and other core priorities, rather than on the arts.

As understandable as this rather sudden loss of funding was in the wider scope of the South African political and economic reality, it left the company’s dancers and staff with an uncertain future: “We were the ones that [lost out]. Seven of us just wanted to do something, so we figured we would put on [a ballet] and see if people came. The very first thing that we did was Iain MacDonald, Karen Beukes and myself choreographed and put on a season of ‘Nutcracker.’  And, because that had been a success, we then thought we could do this! We started with ‘Giselle,’ and tried to raise 200,000 rand [~$27,000] so we could pay the dancers enough to live and to get through the rehearsal times [until] we could make profit from box office. We now obviously know there is not profit from box office [laughs]!! It’s too expensive to run a ballet company!

“Then we registered as a non-profit organization and nine years down the line…”

Despite the lean early years, many of the PACT dancers stayed on and form the core of the present SABT. Malan explains that, “Most of our senior dancers stayed with us and joined SABT. We still have a good 10 dancers, the ‘golden oldies,’ that are still here. And thank god, because they teach the new ones all the time!”

The company has also had an influx of new South African talent, though in the past, it has not always been easy to fill the male ranks: “The only foreigners that we have are our male dancers. It’s very typical South African thing to assume that ballet is not masculine, not very strong. We’re a very sporty country, so the majority of people are going to be encouraged towards the sports, and not towards the ballet.  It’s also very difficult here in the townships, it’s not considered in or hip to do ballet … it’s not considered in or hip to do ballet at any of the schools either.

“[However] I think that, honestly, there’s far more talent in the black males coming up than in the black females. They are very musical, very rhythmical, and have great bodies. I think that definitely, in our outreach program, there are some lovely boys coming up.”

While would-be dancers in any country face an uphill battle to make the professional ranks, the struggle is magnified in South Africa. In a country where the unemployment rate exceeds 70% in some townships and hovers between 25 and 40% overall (depending on the definitions used), most people have never seen the ballet, let alone have the money to take dance lessons. Schools are struggling merely to find competent teachers – arts take a definite back seat. And even where there are arts in the schools, the quality of the programs is often not high enough to produce professional level dancers.

“The curriculum [regular] schools that are teaching ballet in South Africa… it’s not only ballet, you have to do dance. Which means that you’ve probably only [get] an hour and a half ballet in the whole week. How you train someone to be a professional ballet dancer on 1.5 hours of ballet a week? And that’s not 1.5 hours consecutively, it’s a half an hour first thing on Wednesday, and then… And the schools have to have a certain number of students in order to finance it, so then anybody is taken. I really feel for teachers that are trying to teach at the government schools!

“So it’s almost better to go to school, get a good education and go to a good private [ballet] teacher, and/or [be] part of our Academy and start working with the company … and get to professionalism that way. Because the schools are not equipped, and the regulations are impossible to train a classical dancer on.”

As a result, SABT has had to place a great deal of focus on outreach, both as a way of seeking out talent and to raise awareness of ballet in general.  The outreach programs are focused on five townships around Johannesburg: Programmes in Mamelodi, Alexandra, Soweto, Eersterus, and Katlehong.

Malan explains: “[What] we’re trying to do is educate them, not necessarily only teaching them to dance, but exposing them to ballet, exposing them to dance, to theatre, to movement, so that they will not only be our future dancers, but our future audience. Because they don’t even know what ballet is. A lot of South Africans don’t.

“And they come and they see [ballet] for the first time, and they think, ‘Well I actually enjoyed this, it was quite athletic and demanding.’  So I do think that it is slowly starting to come around that it is a career, and you can earn money and have a good living here in South Africa on the salaries.”

The outreach programs, the majority of which were started in the first two years of SABT’s existence, now provide hundreds of children living in the townships a chance to take free dance classes after school.  The children, who range from 8 to 17, are taught by company members, company teachers and other trained dance teachers, and have had the chance to perform in SABT’s “Nutcracker,” “Coppélia” and other public events and dance festivals. However, the programs haven’t yet been around long enough to have produced a company member … yet!

As Malan relates, the outreach programs have had great success, it’s not easy trying to bring ballet into areas of such poverty. Firstly, the conditions in which the classes are taught are also often not ideal – classrooms that are freezing in winter, and hot in the summer, and chairs substituting for barres. And, it’s not easy to make progress when students aren’t always able to show up: “One of the [company] teachers that teaches [in the outreach program], Alexei Ilin, says some days they’re all there, sometimes they’re not. We can’t control who comes and who doesn’t come. And some days somebody will just’ rock up’ and can’t get past step one. [Alexei] says ‘How can I teach them to dance if I keep having to go back to teach the new one that’s coming in?’ But it’s so important for us to encourage them.

“We get them onto the stage as much as we can just to learn stagecraft, and to see their faces when they come to the theatre or to the studio is just incredible. And they love it; they want to come back for more!

“We have a full cast of outreach children in the ‘Nutcracker’ most of the boys [in the production] come from the outreach. We manage to have a couple of casts, which is fantastic. They are the ones selected from our outreach program, that get transported [to the studios] to do a more specialized class here. The outreach programs are all big, and you can’t really teach them properly when there’s a large number of kids in the class.

“The company also has started an Academy as well which is for children over the age of 13 – it’s their first year of high school – and we’ve had a lot of those Academy members come into the company.  So that’s been really fantastic. They audition for [the Academy], and they have extra classes with us on a Tuesday and a Saturday.  We also take also from them if we need extra members for the corps.”

The company itself is one of the great success stories in terms of performing arts in Johannesburg.  “(Other companies), come and go. We’re one of the few here up and running and (that) keep going. And now the orchestra – the Johannesburg Philharmonic is fully established and running again. [Before we] borrowed and stole people for an orchestra.”

The company isn’t able to have live music for all its productions, but when they do, “it makes a big difference to our ticket sales and it makes a huge difference for the dancers. If you have live music you’re feeling everything, you feel every note, but without it, you have to work that much harder to create that atmosphere.”

In the eight years of it’s existence, the company has amassed a repertoire so extensive that Malan has to pause to come up with a even a partial list: “We’ve done all the big classics – we’ve done ‘Swan Lake,’ ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Nutcracker,’ ‘Giselle,’ ‘Cinderella.’ We’ve done a ‘La Traviata’ which is very beautiful. We’ve done ‘Carmen,’ ‘Les Sylphides,’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ … all the big ballets we’ve pretty much done.”

The company has also benefitted with a close-relationship with the Royal Danish Ballet, a link that was born thanks to Malan’s time at the National Ballet of Canada. She explains that, “When I was with the NBoC, they would swap [dancers] between the Australian Ballet, Royal Danish, NBoC, and the Royal Ballet, so we would send two corps, they would send [two dancers]. Two of the Danish dancers came [to NBoC], and I became friends with them while they were there, and over the years we kept in touch. I also guest with [the Soloists and Principals of the Royal Danish Ballet group] quite often to Brazil, so I’ve danced with Nikolaj [Hübbe] and Kenneth [Greve].

“Peter Bo Bendixen [former RDB principal dancer] came to visit me in 2000, and to dance for The Queen and for Nelson Mandela. We had lost contact and he walked into the studio and it was like ’oh my gosh!’ and he wanted to try and do something, so … was coming to stage Napoli for us. And then the company was closed. [So] we [SABT] grabbed them and said come! –. And then Kenneth came to do ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with me here and he choreographed Hamlet for us. Then there was quite a big collaboration – Swedish-Danish-South African exchange. We went there, they came here.”

The visits of the Royal Danish Ballet dancers were always quite popular. As Malan recounts: “Those were our triple bills that sold. We did Apollo, we did Napoli, we did Flower Festival…. And it was a really good mixture. The Royal Danish, Principals and Soloist of the Royal Danish Ballet [were] here for three performances, and it’s like ‘wow!’. The minute you have something foreign up there…!”

At the moment, however, the company is restricted to full lengths, because as Malan explains, “our board won’t allow us to do triple bills, now, for a while, because it doesn’t sell here in SA. People won’t come to them.. The public wants to see story ballets… full lengths.

“The unfortunate thing is that with the recession, you can’t take a chance. You need to know that you’re going to put on something that is a success. We were supposed to be putting on a brand new ‘Dracula,’ but the sponsors [wouldn’t back it] - you just can’t take a chance that it will not be a success.”

Still, despite the wavering economy, the company is not having trouble getting the audiences to come to full-length ballets: It’s quite phenomenal because we just did ‘Cinderella’ in March and April, and it was our best selling season ever, here at the Joburg Theatre. We did better than all of the other shows here!”

Yet, Malan laments the loss of opportunities that come with having new choreographers create short pieces for the company: “It’s so important you need to create the young choreographers, you need to give the young dancers the opportunity not to have the pressure of a full length ballet, but only coping with one act. All of those things are really important to a company and we’re missing out on that whole link.”

Throughout the history of the SABT, and no matter the financial situation, one thing that Malan and her colleagues are adamant about is maintaining the quality and standard of the company.

“For me the most important thing is to maintain the quality. If the quality and the standards are of an international standard, we will keep the audience coming.  People are paying money, and they can only go to one thing it HAS to be exceptional.

“Iain and I often have discussions about whether people should or should not do roles, or how many performances or whatever. For me, it doesn’t matter what night it is or what performance, those people have saved money to come and they are coming to the ballet they are not coming to anything else because they can’t afford to - so you have to give them the best experience. Has to be, otherwise we might as well fade into nothingness.”

Another facet of attracting audiences is keeping ticket prices affordable, and attracting a diverse audience to the theatre.  In terms of ticket prices, Malan is blunt: “You just have to come to terms with the fact that [ballet] is non profitable, so it just depends on the funding that you get.  Our ticket prices range from 50 rand [~$6.50], for some of our performances specifically so that people can come, to 270 [~$35]. And that’s the most expensive. I’d rather have a full house and have cheaper tickets than have [a half empty house].”

In a country where race has been such a key issue, improving diversity at the theatre is never far from people’s minds.  When asked about the diversity of SABT’s audiences, both in terms of race and ages, Malan says that:

“It’s changing, and it’s definitely getting a lot more multi-racial, which is very important for us. It’s not a blue-rinse entertainment anymore! It also really depends on what we’re doing.  Obviously [at] Swan Lake…always you’ll find the first timers. They’ll come to Swan Lake, and to Nutcracker, your first timers.

“Then for our younger audiences, we put on a performance called Rock-A-Tutu. The first time was four years ago, and [it has] a live band, singers, dancers, a narrator, and everything. It’s all the fairytales mixed into one and by the end of that show everybody is up and dancing and clapping and singing.

“You can’t believe how many young people then came to the ballet after seeing Rock-A-Tutu!  You just need to bring them in, introduce them slowly and then eventually bring the heavier ballets onto them.”

One thing that has helped bring in the ballet audiences is the much-improved settings of the new Joburg Theatre complex:  “The Joburg Theatre has just been spectacular it’s safe, very safe to come here. You feel very safe coming into the parking lot. You are very secure in the building and it’s clean.

“[Security issues were] a large reason why many people have stopped going [to the theatre]. We found that ticket sales were not so great when we were at the State Theatre in Pretoria because don’t feel as safe in the city centre of Pretoria as they do here now. The city council of Johannesburg has put so much money into cleaning up and into safety and security, and they haven’t done the same thing in Pretoria. And that affects your public. They don’t feel safe driving in the city and don’t feel safe in the parking lot. And all of that counts for us.”

 When asked where she sees the company in five or ten years time, Malan is very optimistic: “If I see where we’ve come from in nine years at the pace that we’ve grown and the fact that we are 35 permanent members of the company, 12 month contracts, we have an orchestra, full seasons I see [a company] like the Royal Danish in five years time!!

“It’s a challenge, but that’s what makes this company special. In five years, I don’t have a doubt that the company will just blossom because there’s such a desire for it to last. The dancers are going to do whatever they need to do to have a job.

“I have faith, I don’t have the smallest doubt in my mind that we are going to be one of the top companies. I really do. I don’t have a doubt that the company will just blossom because there’s such a desire for it to last. The dancers are going to do whatever they need to do to have a job. And, we have the talent, there is definitely talent coming up.

“The talent is there; the desire and the passion are there from the dancers, and I think South Africans have something that is exceptionally special. It’s not a tangible thing, but there’s something very spiritual about South African dancers. Like when you come to a performance, and it may not be the standard of the Paris Opera, but you’re coming for definitely an experience. That’s one thing that I have always seen in South Africans there’s so much soul. There’s something that comes from the ground here…maybe it’s because of the bush!! [lots of laughter]!”

The South African Ballet Theatre’s currents season continues with Pinocchio, running from 29 October 2009 to 3 January, 2010 at the Joburg Theatre in Johannesburg. More information can be found at the company’s website:

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