We don’t often have good things to say about the City of Jo’burg, so this is a special occasion. The municipality’s decision to sponsor the Jo’burg Ballet has breathed new life into the company. Like Sleeping Beauty being kissed by a handsome prince, ballet in this town is waking up and beautiful things are happening. ALEX ELISEEV finds his escape…
My week of reporting began with e-tolling being launched and ended with the security cluster ministers threatening to arrest the entire nation for taking, publishing or distributing photographs of that little retirement village in Kwazulu-Natal. By Friday night, I was ready for a distraction. Even if it meant driving to Barry Bateman’s hood.
It was the opening night of The Nutcracker, Joburg Ballet’s latest creation. Not long ago, my wife and I watched Cinderella and were blown away by the quality of the ballet being presented by the same company.
The Nutcracker is showing at the Pretoria State Theatre, which is a really, really strange place. It’s like a time machine that sends you hurtling back four or five decades the moment you slam shut your car door. It’s in desperate need of a revamp and a less confusing and clogged up parking system. I’m just going to come out and say it: it’s old and stale and has weird mannequins in glass boxes dressed a little like Game of Thrones characters; way too much orange; way too much linoleum; and not enough of whatever the Teatro at Montecasino, the Lyric at Gold Reef City or the Jo’burg Theatre has. (To those in charge of it: if you need inspiration for how to modernise ugly buildings, just visit Sandton.)
But the theatre is easy to find, more than serves its purpose and once you’re seated, the outside world melts away. In my case, I was blissfully unaware that Radovan Krejcir – the family man who loves South Africa but has a habit of being shot at by remotely controlled cars rigged with shotguns – was being arrested.
The reason I say that beautiful things are happening to ballet in Jo’burg is that just a few days ago, to promote The Nutcracker and one of its big sponsors, the company performed at Gautrain stations and on board the train between Sandton and Hatfield. It was a fantastic and clever PR stunt that also broke down barriers.
The dancers have also performed at airports and at the Jo’burg Zoo, once again, taking the ballet outside of its usual environment. An environment that is often overlooked for the sake of a soccer or rugby game. To contrast the grace of the ballet, and all its costumes, against gritty backgrounds like a train station or an airport is a stroke of genius. (Watch a clip of the flashmob here.)
Before The Nutcracker show began, dancers from the company performed a beautifully choreographed two-minute dance routine that saw ballerinas in bright orange being flown around the stage like airplanes. It ended with the dancers lining up and flipping open suitcases, each containing a letter. Together, it was an advert for Mango airlines. No one hates annoying adverts more than I do, but when it’s cleverly done, even I have to admire it. This one clearly took thought, effort and – from what we were told – was the first of its kind.
Again, clever, fresh thinking to keep sponsors happy and find the money to put on better productions. The energy clearly coming in from the sponsorship which came through in September.
Speaking of productions, The Nutcracker is a timeless classic, forever intertwined with Tchaikovsky’s brilliance. This version gets off to a slightly slow start, with the opening Christmas Eve scene being brought to life by a troupe of young children who go from filling up the backstage (opening presents and hopping around) to performing a really impressive piece and then taking a proud bow. They dance with the innocence that only children have and cope with moves that appear almost too advanced for their age.
Throughout the show, the scene changes are spectacular. Props the size of buildings turn and transform, the Christmas tree rises to the ceiling, snow falls from the roof over an “enchanted forest” and smoke slithers across the stage. All this, along with the sight of a wooden nutcracker magically coming to life and slaying the mouse king and his army, throws your senses completely off balance – in a trippy kind of way.
This interpretation is different to others. There is little attention paid to the Nutcracker himself (itself?) and the magical Dr Drosselmeyer is missing some of the mysticism given to him by E.T.A Hoffmann in the original story.
But the show really bursts into life after the interval. The second act is an avalanche of skill and beauty. The “Russian dancers” fly across the stage to the gasps of the audience while the Spanish couple spins like a tornado. Angela Maree’s performance as Clara, who is taken on the magical journey, is brilliant. Somewhere in the middle of it all, a big Afrikaans man – who may have been missing a braai or a game at Loftus to watch the ballet – let out a loud “Lekker man!” at exactly the wrong moment.
The show climaxes with a performance by Prima Ballerina Burnise Silvius and Jonhal Fernandez, which is breathtaking. They dance together and they dance solos, sending the audience to its feet. If you drive to Pretoria and pay your ticket just to watch them, you will feel like you’ve got your money’s worth. They are absolutely magnificent.
The Nutcracker runs until 1 December. E-tolling starts on 3 December. The ballet is the perfect antidote to South Africa’s current affairs. It’s a no brainer: go and support Jo’burg Ballet.
To the City of Jo’burg: Thank you for supporting the arts. Any chance you can also get our traffic lights working properly? DM
Photo: A scene from The Nutcracker (Picture State Theatre)
Alex Eliseev is an EWN reporter. Follow him at @alexeliseev
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