Pictures: Lauge Sorensen
A dynamic double bill, Fire and Ice showcases Joburg Ballet’s latest season in two contrasting ballets, the classical Raymonda Act 3 staged by Brazilian producer Guivalde de Almeida and and Whispers Of My Soul, a world première by internationally acclaimed French-Algerian choreographer Redha. DIANE DE BEER speaks to these two visiting artists as well as CEO Esther Nasser about dance:
It was immediately obvious when I walked into one of the two rehearsal spaces of Joburg Ballet at the Joburg Theatre that this was a different company to the one I had seen approximatelty three or four years back.
Not only has classical ballet always battled elitism, but it took this country – because of its past beliefs that classical ballet was suitable for only specific bodies (white) – longer than most to transform. However, in the past few years things have been moving at a rapid pace and for someone not aware of the changes, the room is suddenly charged and the upcoming season an exciting lucky packet with lots of surprises hopefully spilling over onto the stage.
It would be easy for them to only stage the much-loved classical ballets, tickets would sell, and many would be smiling but the future of the company would be uncertain. “This is a youthful and vital company,” says CEO Esther Nasser (since 2016), “and it is important to challenge them with new work.” They also need to grow young and new audiences with ballets that will appeal and tempt them to the theatre.
With the company itself in transformation, that should also be reflected in these showcase performances. The two chosen works are vastly different technically with the beautiful classical Raymonda Act 3 which has never been danced locally before moving into the explosive, contemporary Whispers Of My Soul created by a choreographer who knows this country and its dancers. The classical work is exuberant and precise and was first seen by Nasser and artistic director Iain MacDonald on a visit to Brazil. They extended an invitation to the producer Giuivalde de Almeida to stage this ballet with the Joburg Ballet dancers.
“He teaches and stages work around Brazil and the world and his work is extremely precise,” she says.
Bringing in a teacher from the outside is invaluable for the dancers because they pick up on individual points that can make huge differences to a dancer’s work and performance. De Almeida, explains Nasser, is a gentle man and he immediately expresses his affinity with the South African dancers. For him Raymonda Act 3 is a challenging work but his local pupils are like sponges and he is delighted with the progress. Because it is a new work, the bar is set high and the technical demands specific.
The excitement of a classical work never seen on our stages before that carries such depth, is good for the company and for audiences.
Redha comes from a completely different world artistically. He wears his heart on his sleeve, tells his dancers what they are doing right and wrong and demands everything. This French-Algerian choreographer has been here a few times before doing work for companies that Nasser was running at the time.
“He doesn’t hold back,” she says but if you have seen his work like CrashDance or his reimagination of Giselle, he is always worth watching. “If he asks for international quality, you had better give him that,” says Nasser, who is thrilled by both these dance masters in their different fields working with this young company.
Redha loves working with a company that deals in reality and has a vision. “It’s good to be in a space where you can talk to people,” he says. For him the work talks about life, and obviously part of it is his own life. He always remembers when creating that people come to the theatre to be entertained.
“It’s a sacrifice, they pay money and they want a journey,” he believes. “They have to be touched. You can’t leave the theatre unchanged.”
He doesn’t want to speak about the content, rather the people. But he does explain that Whispers Of My Soul is all about the imperfections of being human. It’s about losing time, losing people and then missing everything you lose. Communication is also an element. The way we speak to one another today or don’t, drives Redha to examine how humans communicate with one another. “If you don’t speak to me, we’re all machines,” he says in disgust as he disses texting. This is an artist who has little patience with things that don’t work for him in this modern world.
“Art is a social and political reflection of the world we live in,” he stresses. “We have to entertain.” And then follows the but, “we had better have something to say. All the best writers do.” He feels strongly that as his company of dancers have to show the weaknesses and the strengths, the fragility and the extreme hardships of loss for the dance to have impact.
Wherever he works he likes to incorporate the spirit of the country in his work. “That’s how you touch people,” he insists, something he regards as an obligation. He talks about countries like Colombia and Argentina where he worked recently and how important art becomes. Their lives are so tough that art is vital, he says. But in Africa, a special place, music is part of life and the secret with this work is to bring stories we don’t always want to hear.
For the dancers it is all about the soul. That’s what he’s working with when he drums it into the young dancers to pay attention and to do things exactly the way he wants them to. “With each step, you have to bring your history.”
For both Redha and De Almeida, that’s simply what artists do.