Spanish passion burns up the floor

2011-09-23 09:08

Andile Ndlovu started practising his half of the famous Don Quixote pas de deux while still in Washington, where this South African-trained dancer is based.

For this fresh interpretation of the famous Russian-style ballet, his partner, Lindé Wessels, has been rehearsing her half at The Dance Factory in Newtown.

Similarly, Royal Ballet School-trained Michael Revie, who is locally based, was hard at work at The Dance Factory while his partner, Cynthia Gonzalez, was in Havana doing the same.

Fifteen-year-old Gonzalez, one of Cuba’s most promising baby ballerinas and the youngest member of the 40-strong, cross-continental company, arrived in South Africa in the first
week of September.

Of the seven pairs who will be doing the virtuoso solos and pas de deux during Don Quixote’s month-long run in Durban and Johannesburg, they have had the most time to rehearse, and the results are dazzling.

Irish-born Revie, as a senior dancer, will be partnering three different dancers – Gonzalez, her countrywoman Dayana Hardy and South Africa’s Angela Maree.

During an open day earlier this week, I was lucky enough to see Ndlovu and Wessels in rehearsal. It was only their fourth hour working together as partners for the first time. And it was mesmerising.

Ballet mistress Angela Malan, herself one of South Africa’s most accomplished dancers, coaxed the pair through the rehearsal and within half an hour they had streamlined their partnership, moving more and more as one as the minutes ticked by.

It was a glimpse into the incredible discipline and muscle-straining work that goes
into any performance.

Malan has had a tough task putting together this production. But her job has been made easier by her partnerships with Ana Julia Bermúdez de Castro Varcárcel and Normaría Olaechea Suárez, both senior teachers at The National Ballet School of Cuba.

“It’s about trying to get all the different groups to do the same version. It’s the small things – arms, head movements,” says Malan, adding that she had to film rehearsals, then email them to her Cuban counterparts.

Malan would also have to get recordings to Australia’s Aaron Smyth and Canada’s Alys Shee, who have recently arrived in South African to dance together. Those lucky enough to have seen July’s Ballet Gala would have seen these two dancing together before.

Dirk Badenhorst, the driving force behind this experimental cross-continental production, began his relationship with the Cuban ballet back in 2008. He says with a smile that when he set this cross-continental production in motion, he had no idea how much work it would entail for Malan. But he’s delighted with the results as was everyone invited to the rehearsal.

“This is the most racially integrated ballet you will see in South Africa. Every dancer is here entirely on merit, which is imperative when you are putting it on stage,” he says.

It’s true. Looking around the rehearsal space, it’s encouraging to see a room filled with multicultural youngsters. The dancers show tremendous discipline, but their youthful playfulness shines through, and they tease each other and laugh together as they wait to dance.

There are lots of young men. There’s no shortage of male ballet dancers in Cuba, where ballet is a national treasure. The lack of male dancers is a constant problem in South Africa, where young men often give up their ballet dreams as teenagers.

For Cuba, ballet has become one of its greatest exports. Just about every major ballet company in the world – from Russia to Australia, from New York to London – has Cuban dancers. This is thanks largely to one woman and her dancing legacy.

The country’s ballet history is relatively short, says ballet critic and senior professor at the National Ballet School of Cuba Ismael Albelo Oti, and can be traced back to a visit by Fanny Elssler in 1841.

This visit ignited an interest in this form of dance that originated in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th century. Then in the 1920s, prima ballerina Anna Pavlova visited five times to dance, which developed the nation’s fascination and led to the creation of the country’s first ballet studio.
In the studio’s first ballet class was a little girl of six who would go on to become Alicia Alonso, the patron of Cuba’s ballet success story. Alonso and her husband, Fernando, created the country’s first professional ballet company in 1948.

Last month, at the age of 90, she was honoured by Russia’s Bolshoi Theatre for her contribution not only to Cuban ballet, but to the art form in general. Oti intimated that next year South Africa might just be lucky enough to host Alonso if all goes according to plan.

At the gala, fellow dancer Vladimir Vasiliev from Russia, the spiritual home of this form of dance and the place where Don Quixote was first performed in 1869, said: “It is we who need to learn male ballet dancing from the Cubans now. All thanks to Alicia, who founded classical ballet in Cuba, where it was previously non-existent.”

Alonso made ballet, says Oti. “It was not an elitist company she formed and that same year – 1948 – they performed in a huge stadium with cheap tickets, less than 50 cents, to everyone.”

She also convinced Fidel Castro to believe in the importance of supporting the arts. Some of the results of this partnership between artists and government will be on show for all to see as the vibrant, young, multicultural dancers from Cuba join their South African counterparts on stage this week.

Don Quixote is best described as a whiz-bang carnival of a ballet, jam-packed with solos, leaps, lifts, turns, pirouettes and all the rest of the showpieces of ballet – all performed with the trademark flair of Spanish passion.

It is based on part of the novel written by Miguel de Cervantes about a crazy, chivalrous knight and his trusty companion who make war
with windmills.

“It has huge audience appeal,” says Badenhorst. “There isn’t a moment to get bored. It’s a superb ballet that is accessible to a lot of people.”

This new production, adds Malan, is the perfect blend of the traditional Russian style and that of Cuba. The style of ballet that has grown out of Cuba’s commitment to this discipline is unique and Alonso herself was famous for being able to do six pirouettes en pointe.

“The Cuban style is about the virtuosity, the turns and the balance,” says Badenhorst, and this is evident at the rehearsals where, while Ndlovu and Wessels learn to read each other’s bodies and move in perfect synchronicity, the other dancers practise their lifts, their pencheés, their pirouettes and balance en pointe for impossibly long spells of time.

By the time Ndlovu and Wessels are finished their rehearsal, they are breathing hard. They are athletes, but more than that, they are artists of the human form who are the best examples of what commitment and discipline can do.

The rehearsals are a visual representation of why Badenhorst thinks ballet has such potential in our own country and why he has nurtured a relationship with ballet-loving Cuba.

“Ballet is all about the body, discipline, commitment, and it is a language that can be understood universally. We are always looking for ways that bring us together. Ballet is one of those ways,” says Badenhorst.

»?Don Quixote will be performed at Durban’s Playhouse Opera Theatre from September 29  until October 5 before moving to Joburg’s Lyric Theatre at Gold Reef City from October 13 to 23.

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