SA dance companies ‘face closure’ under new strategy

2012-05-03 06:43

South Africa’s professional dance companies face an uncertain future after their regular three-yearly funding from the National Arts Council (NAC) suddenly stopped last month without notice.

“Normally they send a letter to say your application has been successful or not – this time we heard nothing,” says Themba Nkabinde of company Moving Into Dance.

“We found out we weren’t alone – none of the established companies’ applications were successful.”

Instead, says the dance community, funds were given to grassroots organisations, in line with the NAC’s new strategy under Arts Minister Paul Mashatile.

“No one seems to make the connection that it doesn’t help to develop talent and then have no professional stages to perform on,” said Professor Elizabeth Trichardt of Cape Town City Ballet.

Says internationally acclaimed choreographer Gregory Maqoma of Vuyani Dance Theatre: “All the major companies run development and training programmes. We don’t understand why these weren’t taken into account.

“We’ll stay open, but it means that our development projects in marginalised communities have to be cut back. We used NAC funds to train.”

The NAC’s CEO, Monica Newton, said the companies were thoroughly appraised and are still eligible for funding.

The NAC is implementing new policies and funding models and did not want to commit to “three-year funding which was not aligned to the new strategic plan,” she said.

The NAC’s new strategy is focused on transformation and youth development. She says they will consult the dance community and that “new rounds of funding will be advertised in the second half of 2012, based on a holistic new model of funding”.

Said Trichardt, whose ballet company has survived for 78 years: “We may be closed by then.

“We face closure any time. We survive from month to month, begging and borrowing.”

She says the company has squeezed its production budgets to the point that only music old enough to fall outside copyright can be used. “People have had to get used to Tchaikovsky and more Tchaikovsky.”

Despite increased interest in ballet from disadvantaged communities, the country has only two professional companies. Mzansi Dance Theatre has merged with Johannesburg-based SA Ballet Theatre, pooling resources to survive.

The companies host development programmes in Gauteng townships.

“Kids are coming off the streets and knocking on our door,” says Iain McDonald of SA Ballet Theatre, who also received no NAC funds.

“When we started out a decade ago we had one black dancer. A third of the dancers in our current production, Giselle, are non-white. We’d have more, but our dancers of colour are being snapped up overseas. Lion King just took three of them. And no way can you compete with dollars and pounds.”

Many local ballet dancers are taking jobs dancing on cruise ships for better pay. South African dancers, across all disciplines, earn between R5 000 and R10 000 a month before tax.

Maqoma says his company has focused on international performances to survive, doing “40 international shows a year and about two in South Africa”.

Georgina Thomson of the annual Dance Umbrella festival says it faces closure without help from the NAC as they have lost sponsors.

“We have amazing talents. Globally our choreographers are trendsetters. This year we had 16 international programmers coming to the Dance Umbrella.”

The national lottery has become the country’s primary arts funder. But the dance community says it can’t sustain itself on lottery funding alone as the process of reapplying for funds is painfully slow.

At best, renewals take a year, at worst three. While waiting for new funding, companies had relied heavily on steady funds from the NAC.

Members of the dance community expressed outrage that Mashatile had spent R10 million on one art exhibition for the 2011 Venice Biennale when the NAC has a total of R65 million available for all arts grants in 2012.

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