Taking ballet to the streets of Soweto via Cuba

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An article by Sue Blaine for Business Day.

“TURN your sankle,” says ballet teacher Maria De Los Angeles, reaching down to gently push at the offending foot. “Not ‘sankle’— ankle,” says Dirk Badenhorst, CEO of the South African International Ballet Competition.

Surrounded by 12 dancers, Badenhorst and De Los Angeles are standing in a small ballet studio just up the road from Soweto’s famous Vilakazi Street, where tourists bundled in coats and scarves are visiting the one-time homes of former president Nelson Mandela and Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Almost none of the dancers are trained in ballet, but they are being taught to teach the classical genre to township children.

“An-kle,” says De Los Angeles, repeating the word several times to get the feel of it. Cuban, she speaks very little English, and has come to SA to teach “the Cuban method”, known for its intense physical discipline. The idea is that each of the 12 dancers ranged around De Los Angeles will go on to start their own ballet school in a township. This, says Badenhorst, is the only way to start producing more professional black dancers in SA. For every 500 or so children who go to ballet in primary school, perhaps one will go on to dance professionally.

“I want township children to play cricket in the street, soccer in the street and go to ballet in the street,” says Badenhorst. “I don’t want it to be an imported thing anymore. So, we train 12 teachers here and they each teach 100-120 children. They take what they learnt today, and tomorrow they implement it; and they know what it feels like because they are doing it now.”

Badenhorst is already credited with boosting ballet’s profile in a country in which it could so easily be dismissed as white and elitist, including working to bring more dancers of colour to the stage and creating cultural ties with dance companies across the world, especially Cuban and Chinese. He did much of this as CEO of Joburg Ballet, but that relationship ended abruptly last year when the company suspended him in a fight over money. “The battle continues,” he says. “The lawyers are doing what lawyers are supposed to do. It has nothing to do with this.”

“We spent fortunes in the past bussing kids from here (Soweto) to the city,” Badenhorst continues. “It’s expensive, and you only get some. It also means that ballet stays very white, that thing that happens elsewhere and city teachers don’t want to come out here. So now we are teaching teachers who live here.”

Meanwhile, De Los Angeles has fixed her gaze on the 12 dancers in her class. She slaps her rear end. “Every, every, every day, stomach up, bottom up, tight. Long, long, long body. Neck long. Three or four times a day,” she says. The class nods in unison.

John Tsunke has travelled to Soweto from Welkom in the Free State. He wants to eventually go back there to teach ballet. “I will start here, and when I have seen results, I want to go back there. In the Free State it is a different story. I had to come here to learn to dance. There are no facilities. I want to give back. I didn’t have opportunities like this and I want to give people a choice to do ballet, or not. If you don’t do it at least for a bit, you can’t choose.”

Class dismissed, De Los Angeles sits in a blue plastic chair, back straight. She tells BDLive she finds her work in SA “very hard” because the dancers have no classical ballet training, but “nice because they all have a serious interest in ballet”.

“I am finding it a good challenge,” she says, speaking in Spanish that is translated by Badenhorst. “I have to prepare more because I don’t speak the language, but that is beneficial, it makes me a better person.”

De Los Angeles first taught in SA last year, for six months, and is here to November this year. It’s a posting she finds as heart-rending as she finds it heart-warning. “She’s very homesick,” says Badenhorst, “Part of it is the language thing. I took her to my family at the weekend, but she hardly said a word because she can’t speak English.”

The South African Cuban Ballet School opened doors in 2012, and is headed on a rotating basis by visiting ballet teachers from the National Ballet School of Cuba, assisted by Cuban dancers and South African ballet teachers. This year, Badenhorst has introduced satellite schools in two of SA’s most iconic townships, Alexandra, famously a stone’s throw from the business hub of Sandton, and Soweto.

He is under no illusions about the rough-and-ready nature of the training programme. “Is it ideal? No, but it is important to start somewhere. If I don’t we won’t get to a point where there are more (professional) black ballet dancers. Will there be some success in three years time? Yes. Will we have a tough time at first? Yes.”

It is hoped that by 2018 “one or two” of the entrants to the South African International Ballet Competition will have come through this programme, and that by 2020 those who have come to ballet through this township transformation programme will make up “a fair number” of the competition entrants. “It hugely increases the pool if each of these 12 (ballet teacher trainees) can teach 100 kids a year,” says Badenhorst.

De Los Angeles is a master teacher. She studied under Fernando Alonso, who developed the Cuban method, and Ramona de Sáa, director of the National Ballet School of Cuba, and has received national recognition from the Cuban government for her teaching.

“The Cuban method has taken from the Italian (Cecchetti) and Russian (methods) what is good,” she says of the world’s youngest teaching ballet method. Dancers taught this way often win international prizes, and include SA’s Leroy Mokgatle, Andile Ndlovu and Kitty Phetla.

The nonprofit Art of Motion SA dance school in Johannesburg is notable for several successes, including Mokgatle, who this year won a scholarship to study at one of a variety of international ballet schools through the Prix de Lausanne international ballet competition.

Director Esme Harris uses several training methods — Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), Cecchetti and Cuban, and in some instances a Russian method (there are several) — because “it makes students more marketable…. Any dancer hoping to secure contracts has to be as versatile as possible, in the methods and in genres. With all the thousands and thousands of dancers out there (hoping for a professional contract), I can’t see you getting a place if you are not versatile in method and genre.”

Harris says she has “great appreciation for the method, especially for boys and in some aspects for girls”, and that the ballet teachers she employs — mostly qualified in the RAD or Cecchetti methods — have attended workshops with the Cuban ballet mentors Badenhorst has brought to SA. There are, as yet, no exams in the Cuban method, available in SA, as there are for RAD and Checcetti.

Of course, what Harris and Badenhorst are doing is different. She is training dancers who have chosen the discipline as a career, he just wants to deepen the pool, give township youngsters another extramural option so that, from the many who do ballet some will find the slipper fits.

De Los Angeles came to Soweto to teach ballet first in 2015 “because I was told to”. This year she could have chosen not do, but decided to return “to help Dirk, because I want to implant the Cuban method in SA. It’s the Cuban way, to show solidarity with all people who need assistance.”

Former Cuban premier Fidel Castro made ballet success a symbol of Cuban artistic achievement, allowing national ballet dancers to tour the world. There ballet training is less a child’s extramural, more a complete lifestyle. Children selected for training live in hostels, and are cared for by teachers such as De Los Angeles. The intensity of the relationship between dancer and instructor is something De Los Angeles misses.

“I am going to cry,” she says, waving expressive hands in front of her torso. “In Cuba, the students are as family. Here you walk in, you say good morning, you teach, you say goodbye. There you take the children to the doctor, you are completely involved.”

“I only partly enjoy bringing foreigners to SA,” says Badenhorst. “It would be much better to employ South Africans, but the level of the South African dancer has to improve. At our last competition there was this 11-year-old Korean boy doing the most amazing things. We have the talent, but we have to train at a younger age. That’s why Maria is so important. She goes into class and she doesn’t take shit from nobody, she turns into a sergeant major. Her discipline is already having an impact.”

Tsunke started studying under De Los Angeles in 2015. “She’s a very strong teacher,” he says, “but as a person she is soft. You respect her in class, but she is the softest person.”

His colleague, Gustin Makgeledisa, from Soweto, is a professional dancer and choreographer who began dancing in community halls and went on to study dance in Johannesburg, Cape Town and, under scholarship, Tunisia. He is more used to working in the contemporary and African genres. “I usually fuse styles,” he says, “But I have also been teaching (adults), and I see this as an enhancement. It’s always good to go back to basics. I want to focus on kids, and this method teaches a very good base and foundation.”

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