The politics of ballet

2015-04-26 09:30

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The combined Joburg Ballet and Liaoning Ballet with principal cast (second row, from left) Michael Revie, Brooklyn Mack, Juan Carlos Osma, Jonathan Rodrigues and Ma Ming and prima ballerinas (front, from left) Viengsay Valdés, Burnise Silvius and Yu Chuanya PHOTO: Barry Goldman

Last Friday was the opening night of the extravaganza that is Swan Lake at the Joburg Theatre. This year’s performance was more than just a display of superb dancing – it was an exercise in diplomatic relations between the ANC’s oldest political partner, Cuba, and our largest trading partner, China.

The performance was preceded by political formalities.

“We would like to welcome the honourable Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete, patron and former minister of the Reserve Bank Tito Mboweni, the Cuban, Chinese and South African ministers of culture, honourable deputies...” and so on until, four speeches later (all opened after the same protocols), half the audience had been addressed and the curtain could finally go up.

Cultural events such as these in ballet have long been used to forge new relations and honour existing ones.

To show the unity between the three nations, this performance of Swan Lake saw the Swan Queen – a role traditionally reserved for one dancer – split into three, one for each act of the ballet and each swan from a different country.

For the first time, a Chinese dancer played the white swan, Odette, a Cuban dancer played the black swan, Odile, and a South African danced out the third act as the Swan Queen.

When performed by one dancer or country, the role of the Swan Queen is intended to show every side of a ballerina’s repertoire and personality – a rite of passage for only the most talented.

Odette, the heroic white swan, is traditionally the pure, innocent one – her movements lithe, technical and floaty.

Odile is the cunning black swan – all drama, passion and seduction.

The Swan Queen, who manages to escape the corrupting ways of the evil Von Rothbart and come back to herself as the Princess Odette, embodies the ballet’s ultimate maxim – a triumphant dance of the wills as the heart chooses good over evil.

With three dancers, there was no opportunity for a single prima ballerina to show her range. But having three superb ballerinas pour their hearts into each role paid off. Each act proved as spectacular as the last – a grand and symbolic example of how international relations can work to cement important economic relations.


The sizable Chinese and Cuban participation is but a small part of the global cultural partnerships that have been playing out against the backdrop of the ballet, often signalling big business taking place in the wings.

A week before her appearance this week, Mbete was on her sixth working visit to China, where she was cementing the interministerial agreements defined by the China-South Africa bilateral agreement called the Five- to 10-Year Strategic Programme for Cooperation, part of which is the Year of China in South Africa – a cultural-exchange programme that will see performances of Chinese culture countrywide for the rest of the year.

“Through ballet, China and South Africa can exchange this art and have corporate interaction,” China’s minister of culture told China Central Television last week.

SA prima ballerina Burnise Silvius (front) poses with, from left, Lindé Wessels, Joburg Ballet artistic director Iain MacDonald, Brazilian dancer Jonathan Rodrigues and Joburg Ballet chief executive Dirk Badenhorst during the International Ballet Festival of Havana last year PHOTO: Lauge Sorensen

All might have run smoothly on the opening night, but the truth is Cuba’s ballet company is in crisis – even more so than the embattled state of ballet in SA.

During the more than 40 years of the US’s much-criticised embargo on the communist country, the National Ballet of Cuba became more than “an extension of the revolution’s plans to make the arts accessible to all”, as Fidel Castro once said. It became a diplomatic troupe of cultural ambassadors who, under the sanctions on them, could exhibit the flourishing of Cuban culture under embargo – a way of saying to the US: “We’re fine without you?...?just look at our dancers.”

Castro pumped millions into the company as its style became increasingly revered around the globe and the dancers’ function as diplomatic representatives became more valuable to the revolution.

His only stipulation was: “The company has to be good.”

Fifty years later, after being exposed to how well dancers of the same calibre are treated in other countries, these Cuban dancers are speaking out about their dismal salaries (a prima ballerina earns R3?000 a month), terrible living conditions, insane working hours and the destructive leadership of their blind ballet master.

While on tour to Mexico in 2013, six members of the company crossed the US border to seek asylum. Each was almost immediately offered jobs on the other side. The rate of defection has increased over the past two years and more than a fifth of the company has left.

Now, with the announcement of the US’s plans to lift the Cuban embargo two weeks ago, there has been a lot of talk about the possibility of more dancers leaving Cuba for other companies. Whether any of these dancers will come to our country in the future is unclear, but what is clear is the bridge that divides the arts and business is a two-way street.

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