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‘I Got Rhythm’ – reinventing a ballet company with blood, sweat and triumphs

‘I Got Rhythm’ – reinventing a ballet company with blood, sweat and triumphs
Leane Theunissen with guest artist David Ward from BalletMet in the USA in I Got Rhythm at Artscape. Image: Kim Stevens

A new artistic producer has brought a liberating energy to the Cape Town City Ballet, and the dancers are pouring their heart and soul into his exciting inaugural production, ‘I Got Rhythm’. 

In a huge white-wall studio, with daylight pouring in through high picture windows, spilling from the speakers was George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, the early 20th-century composer’s most famous work, full of pizzazz and jazzy up-tempo, heart-soaring rhythms.

On the floor, the men were one moment being used as chairs, the women perched on their shoulders. The next moment, they were being hoisted, maybe a leg raised, toes pointed skywards. A kind of seduction, a romantic tease, ensued.

It was demanding choreography effortlessly executed. Broad, deliberate smiles on the dancers’ faces, even in moments when, surely, they wanted to fall on the floor and cry, their bodies aching, broken, exhausted.

Instead, despite lungs on fire and sweat glistening, there would be another power-lift moment, their partners suddenly over the shoulder or overhead. Then volley after volley of pulse-quickening leaps, throws, catches and twirls, a simultaneous mix of playfulness and control, feet flexed and arched just so, fingers poised, heads at precise angles. All this interspersed with coy, furtive glances, flirtatious exchanges, sassiness, schmoozing, unwavering cool.

Joburg Ballet guest artists Darragh Hourrides and Bruno Miranda in I Got Rhythm at Artscape. Image: Kim Stevens

Leané Theunissen and David Ward in I Got Rhythm at Artscape. Image: Kim Stevens

Kirste Paterson and Leusson Muniz in I Got Rhythm at Artscape. Image: Kim Stevens

There was no mistaking the gender dynamics, the sensuality, seductiveness and hip-centred razzmatazz of a kind of whirlwind glitz-and-glam party full of glamourpusses and handsome geezers. The women possessed a porcelain doll grace, poise and perfection as they spun on the tips of their toes. The men, some ripped and shredded, others lean and sinewy like they have ropes beneath their skin. All of them magically concealing exhaustion, barely out of breath, hardly a hint of effort, aside from a few tell-tale sheens of sweat.

My own heart was racing, however. It was like watching a sprint and a rugby match all in one: exhilarating to behold, exhausting simply to see it unfold.

The rehearsal was apparently a gentle one, the objective being to let David Ward, a guest dancer who’d flown in from the US the night before, find his place in the whirlwind action.

At some point, amid the swirls and twirls and pirouettes, the women suddenly went limp for a sequence that choreographer David Nixon referred to as a “mannequin” moment. The females feigned motionlessness, becoming dead-weight objects that the men pushed, pulled, lifted and dragged around the space like rag dolls, the women fearlessly being spun and lifted and held.

At the end of it all, Nixon turned to those of us watching and, as if surprised by the effect of his own choreography, whispered: “Now that’s a workout!”

Then a sly smile filled his face: he knew precisely how tough it was to do what they did.

I got rhythm

Jordan Roelfze, Leané Theunissen and Bella Redman (front). (Photo: Oscar O’Ryan)

Shock to the system

“It’s very showy,” said Cape Town City Ballet dancer Hannah Ward during lunch. “We’ve got to bring a lot to the work. When a section is 10 minutes long, towards the end you’re exhausted. And that’s when you need to pick it up, so stamina is critical. This show has been a shock to the system.”

The show, “I Got Rhythm”, is Nixon’s in­­augural production since taking over the company as artistic producer. Ultimately, he explained, the ballet company will also share the stage with dancers from Jazzart Dance Theatre, plus singers from Cape Town Opera, and the orchestra.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Three bite-size operas offer something old, something new, something comic and something blue

“Ballet orchestras are always in the pit and that makes them feel that they’re lesser than [the dancers], even though the music is so central to what we do as dancers. I thought, why not make them visible to create a real connection between musicians and dancers?”

It is, Nixon said, a way of gathering various tribes in Cape Town’s performing arts community in a celebration of unity.

Nixon first began tinkering with elements of the show in the late 1990s, completing it just ahead of his departure from Ohio’s BalletMet in 2001 to become the artistic director of Northern Ballet in Leeds in the UK, a position he held until his so-called retirement at the end of 2021. He said that after six months of watching Judge Judy, he was ready to start working again, which is how he came to be in Cape Town.

Despite his demand for precise movements, the Gershwin programme has became symbolic of Nixon’s interest in bringing a freer approach to the form. In Leeds, he used the show to loosen the company up. “It was good for the dancers because it allowed them to move out of the style they’d become set in.”

I Got Rhythm at Artscape. Image: Kim Stevens

I Got Rhythm at Artscape. Image: Kim Stevens

Though artistically liberating, it’s incredibly de­manding because it incorporates elements from dance genres other than classical ballet. Nixon said his own instincts as a choreographer are rooted in a strong tap background and flamenco dancing, both of which inform his extensive classical ballet experience.

He said Gershwin’s music is ideal for a show that’s about bringing together  contrasting elements. The composer was himself at the intersection of genres and styles.

“He wasn’t jazzy enough to be jazz, not classical enough to be classical. He became this ‘thing’ for America — to some extent representative of their integration, considering that jazz is a form of music that came from the black people of America.”

In the UK, Nixon put Northern Ballet on the map, transforming it into a powerhouse of innovative dance programmes. He left an indelible mark, creating 13 new works in 20 years. His wide-ranging ballets, not all of which were loved by critics (both his Nazi-themed Hamlet and an “intergalactic” Sleeping Beauty raised eyebrows), generated excellent box office successes and tended to always look gorgeous, thanks to his un­­faltering visual sense.

Stretching the dancers

Nixon seems to have a finger-on-the-pulse artistic acumen, too, knowing not only what draws audiences, but also what dancers require in order to be stretched.

“My work is strongly ballet-based but also very physical,” he said. “The dancers have to be physical with their bodies and they have to be fit to do it. And there’s an articulation. The whole show has a cleanliness, a sophistication of movement that brings a crispness — a clarity — to what’s on stage.”

According to the Cape Town City Ballet dancers, Nixon has been quick to stamp his mark on the company. “It’s very different to what I’m familiar with,” said Fanelo Ndweni (24), who grew up in Joburg’s CBD. “I’m used to doing ballet or contemporary or African. But David’s choreography requires a mixture of styles. It’s probably one of the toughest things I’ve done.”

Jordan Roelfze and Bella Redman. (Photo: Oscar O’Ryan

Ndweni said he sometimes feels himself losing energy during rehearsals, as if about to crash. “I push through, though, because everyone else is pushing through as well.”

Later in the rehearsal, after the big ensemble number, Ndweni was pushing himself again, this time in an exhausting two-hander danced to I Got Rhythm.

“It’s two guys being competitive with each other,” explained Nixon, “done in a good-­humoured way so the audience can engage in the game of ‘I’m faster, quicker and can jump higher than you’ with them.”

It’s fast-paced with strutting and leaping, and a jokey showing-off that ends with both dancers collapsed on the floor.

“What’s your heart rate?” asked assistant director Tracy Li. “Seventy-nine,” Ndweni said, smiling cautiously.

His answer produces a sea of disbelieving frowns and laughs until another dancer went to check the BPM reading on Ndweni’s watch and shook his head. “He’s lying,” he announced to more laughter.

These are the kinds of things these peak-of-fitness dancers find funny, despite the reality of the physical demands placed on them. Never mind the injuries and muscle aches, the anxiety of learning new choreography and then the pressure of getting it right, again and again, in front of an audience — and the requirement to do it with grace, effortlessly, smiles blazing.

To help fast-track the learning process, Nixon has, along with his wife, ballet mistress Yoko Ichino, developed a training method that they’ve used for years to build dancers to a certain level. Ichino, who started dancing professionally in the early 1970s and in her career partnered with, among others, Rudolf Nureyev, spent two weeks taking the company through a rigorous back-to-­basics boot camp in preparation for Nixon’s choreography.

“It was humbling,” said Hannah Ward. “As you get older, your body just doesn’t necessarily respond as easily. Sometimes you lose a bit of range and flexibility. Yoko’s method has been incredibly helpful — it helps you use your body more wisely.

“It’s hard at first,” said Nixon of the journey he’s put the company on. “But if you train your body properly, you become stronger and can dance at a certain level.”

Mental challenge

Of course, it’s not only physical stamina and prowess that’s critical. Much of the journey is mental.

Casey Swales, a tall, gifted dancer from Durban, where there’s no permanent ballet company, said there’s an unmistakable mental intensity during the rehearsal period. “There’s no going home to chill and switch off. I obsess easily, tire my brain by constantly thinking through what I’ve got to do,” he said.

“It’s all-consuming be­cause you want to give everything you’ve got to it.”

Swales said the obsessive aspect of rehearsals is inherent to the often quite ferocious and always demanding process of the brain taking in new moves, trying to synch those with the body. “Last night I literally woke up in the middle of the night from a choreography dream while going over Rhapsody, the music playing in my brain.”

I Got Rhythm at Artscape. Image: Kim Stevens

I Got Rhythm at Artscape. Image: Kim Stevens

I Got Rhythm at Artscape. Image: Kim Stevens

I Got Rhythm at Artscape. Image: Kim Stevens

Speak to any ballet dancer and there are the stories of injury, dancing through pain, putting their bodies through something akin to hell. There was nary a dancer I spoke to after the rehearsal who didn’t recount some or other hair-raising “incident”.

“I’ve just come back from a serious foot injury involving the ligament of my bunion bone,” said principal dancer Kirstél Paterson. “It’s from dancing two seasons when I shouldn’t have been dancing at all.”

There were other issues, too. “I have arthritis and degeneration in my big toe joints which comes from dancing 20-plus years on pointe.”

Swales broke his toe just before he was due to dance the lead in a huge Cape Town production of Spartacus; he had to sit out the run, weeks of work put on ice. Ndweni twisted his ankle in December while doing a double saut de basque during a rehearsal for A Christmas Carol. He was in a moon boot for 12 weeks. Chanté Daniels, his partner in the Rhapsody number, is only recently back after a hip operation. “I have to gently throw her from side to side without hurting her,” he said.

Despite these endless physical hazards, these dancers are un­­wavering in their commitment.

“We had such an intense rehearsal now,” said Oleksii Ishchenko, a 38-year-old dancer originally from Kyiv, Ukraine, who struck me as being on a huge high after rehearsing.

“The choreography is so meticulous, a second’s hesitance and you’re out of the momentum of the entire routine. But when you’re getting it right and you’re perfectly in synch with your partner, that feeling is unmatched,” said Ishchenko.

Paterson said it comes down to the incomparable feeling of dancing on stage. “Being on stage is the only time I can express myself completely. My soul is on that stage — it’s a sacred space and what audiences see is me having the time of my life up there.”

“I love doing this,” said Ishchenko. “And because I love it, I tell myself, uh-uh, you’re not giving up, no matter how difficult it can seem. Because this is what I want to do with my life: dance.

“It’s a journey, from weeks of constantly being challenged, pumping new information during rehearsals until eventually, you nail it and it’s programmed into your body and you can start enjoying it. Then you’re on stage, looking at the audience with those calm eyes, showing them that you’re in control, telling them, you watch me, I’m here to perform for you! That feeling of being on stage — just talking about it gives me goosebumps.” DM

I Got Rhythm runs from 17 to 26 May 2024 at Artscape. Tickets are available on WebTickets

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.


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