Maverick Life

Maverick Life

A big step forward: American ballet stars in South Africa

A big step forward: American ballet stars in South Africa

An invasion of American dancers is on its way to Johannesburg – bringing with them signature works that have never been performed in Africa before. J BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look forward to this visit.

If there is one thing that is absolutely true about Dirk Badenhorst, the head of the Jo’burg Ballet (sometimes, still called the South African Ballet Theatre), it is that he takes a licking but keeps right on ticking. A few years back, Dirk took over the leadership of the financially tottering ballet in Johannesburg, merged it with his own independent company, Mzansi Ballet, and then went straight into action to build a more secure, stable base for the new company.

He has now spent years turning the combined dance company around financially, in both business plan and balance sheet terms – and in efforts to expand its community outreach and teaching programs to build new audiences for ballet’s future in South Africa. If that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, he also started an international ballet competition that takes place in Cape Town and he has been bringing internationally regarded dancers and companies to South Africa from the US, Russia, Cuba and elsewhere for full-length ballet performances and showcases of favourite moments – often in collaboration with the Jo’burg Ballet.

Just by the way, let’s have none of those sniggers about the inclusion of Cuba in that list. Under a half-century’s guidance by the legendary Alicia Alonso, Cuba’s dance aesthetic, a fine mix of gutsy athleticism and some serious ballet technique, has become admired around the world and is a real favourite of audiences wherever top Cuban dancers have performed.

This time around, in association with Joaquin de Luz of the New York City Ballet, Badenhorst has corralled twelve top American dancers from companies in the US and Europe. The group includes Joaquin de Luz, Amar Ramarsa, and Michaela DePrince for a stand-alone extravaganza of ballet works by these visiting dancers. Luz and Ramarsa are now leading figures with the New York City Ballet, the country’s premier ballet company, and DePrince, the former Sierra Leone war orphan turned rising dance star, is now at the Dutch National Ballet after a year with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Back in 2012, while still a teenager, DePrince had made her debut in Africa to dance with the Jo’burg Ballet in “Le Corsaire” and “Don Quixote”, to much acclaim.

About this upcoming group visit, Joaquin de Luz explained, “My fellow dancers and I are looking forward to our visit and the opportunity to dance for South African audiences. We have assembled a group of outstanding American stars and a repertoire of classical ballet highlights that will show them at their best. We are also bringing some pieces that SA audiences have not had the opportunity to see, as well as works by legendary choreographer George Balanchine. So it will be a blend of the new and the familiar that we know will thrill and enthrall.”

Early in June, we were able to catch up with Ramasar by phone, just before he was about to head into his morning rehearsals in New York City. With his mixed South Asian/Latino Caribbean heritage – by way of the Bronx – Ramasar is a long way from what used to be the near-required physical template and background for a leading dancer – or, indeed, any dancer – on stage for the New York City Ballet. But, now, Ramasar is something of the poster child for the changing racial dynamics of ballet in America. We talk a bit about his artistic inspirations and the forces that drove him into ballet – and the name of Arthur Mitchell inevitably comes up – as it should.

Mitchell had effectively broken the colour bar at the NY City Ballet in 1962, with the support of choreographer George Balanchine – even though most ballet big wigs insisted the black body somehow just didn’t fit the supposedly more ethereal realm of classical ballet. Regardless, Mitchell became a sensation in the role of Puck in Balanchine’s new “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1962. Later, of course, Mitchell would leave his starring spot with the NY City Ballet to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem, in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, in response to the racial upheavals that followed, this as a way of inspiring African American creative energies.

This writer tells Ramasar that he had worked very closely with Mitchell in arranging the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s month-long performance tour to South Africa back in 1992, at the beginnings of this country’s new era; and Ramasar says how extraordinary a comment that is, since he, Ramasar, had just been talking with Mitchell at a big dance awards event the other night in New York City. Coincidences abound. We now have a bond, even if Ramasar is a diehard NY Yankees fan (just like actor Billy Crystal), while this writer, by contrast, remains a lifelong Philadelphia Phillies supporter. Baseball, like soccer football elsewhere, is virtually tribal for American sports fans.

Like so many of the dancers selected for this tour by Badenhorst and de Luz, Ramasar is a dancer whose promise is already proved, but who remains eager to grow further as a dancer and presence on stage. As Dance magazine, has described Ramasar, “Few dancers at NYCB [New York City Ballet] give audiences a blast of joy the way Amar Ramasar does.

But he constantly seeks to improve (i.e. always in the video room ‘finding things I’m not happy with’), and his performances in recent seasons have reflected that. Ramasar’s knack for learning choreographic styles ranging from Susan Stroman’s Broadway brass to Balanchine’s spare Stravinsky ballets, partially stems from his background (his father is Trinidadian of East Indian ancestry, his mother is Puerto Rican), which includes hip hop, salsa, and merengue.” Yes, that background could certainly give a dancer some terpsichorean flexibility.

Ramasar explains while we’re on the phone that it was really his uncle who was responsible for launching him – at the rather late age of eleven  – into dance, by showing him a VTR of the Stravinsky/Balanchine work “Agon”. The uncle was already in New York’s dance world, but it seems there was no obligatory viewing of “The Nutcracker” at Christmas to lure him into dance. Dance magazine goes on to describe a bit more about Ramasar’s history, noting, “Smitten, Ramasar auditioned for SAB [School of American Ballet] in what would be his first ballet class. The Bronx-born kid was accepted into the Boys I class with students as young as 6 and had to catch up.” He obviously did.

For this South Africa trip, Ramasar will be dancing in “Who Cares?” together with Ashley Bouder, Emilie Gerrity and Indiana Woodward. “Who Cares?” is a lyrical Broadway-inspired Balanchine work, set toa suite of George Gershwin songs – and this will be its premiere on stage in South Africa. Other works to be performed by the visitors include: “Tarantella,” danced by Joaquin de Luz and Ashley Bouder; excerpts from “Don Quixote,” performed by Isaac Hernandez and Michaela de Prince and “Le Corsaire,” danced by Joseph Gatti and Adiarys Almeida; “Duet,” by Andrea Schermoly and Ana Maria Lucaciu (with choreography by Andrea Schermoly); “Five variations on a theme,” performed by Joaquin de Luz; and highlights from “Dianne and Actaeon,” danced by Michaela DePrince and Jonhal Hernandez. The varied mix of classic, neo-classical and frankly modern balletic dance works, including several never performed before in South Africa, should delight audiences.

Performances are set to run from 20-22 June at the Montecasino Theatre in northern Johannesburg, but there will also be two performances in a ballet in the bush-type event at a natural resort for two days, and a portion of the revenue raised will be handed over to rhino conservation efforts. DePrince has agreed to be the patron of this rhino conservation event – a fitting story, given her own extraordinary rescue from frightful circumstances as a four year-old West African war orphan. DM

Tickets are available via Computicket for all Montecasino performances, 20-22 June. For more information or to purchase one of the packages for  the Ballet in the Bush events, 23 – 24 June, contact Dirk Badenhorst directly at 083 324 0949 or via [email protected]

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Main Photo: Amar Ramarsa (Photo New York City Ballet)

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