WATCH: Backstage with the Black Swan

Mariette Opperman. (Photo: Herman Eloff/Channel24)
Mariette Opperman. (Photo: Herman Eloff/Channel24)

Cape Town - Imagine you’re about to fulfil a dream you’ve cherished since childhood. Not on only that, you’ll be doing it in the company of someone you’ve looked up to and admired for a very long time. 

This is what looked set to happen to Mariette Opperman, when she was offered the role of the Black Swan in the ballet Swan Lake.

“Since I’ve been a little girl, Swan Lake has always been the ultimate ballet for me. It’s the most famous classical ballet and I’ve always wanted to do this principal role so when I heard that I’m actually doing it, it was very overwhelming. But I’m very, very happy and feeling very privileged to be doing this.”

Mariette considers Marionella Nunes the best Swan Lake ballerina. “She’s my absolute favourite who I look up to, but then there’s also Burnise Silvius (Joburg Ballet’s recently retired ballerina). She has inspired me since I was a little girl and she was actually supposed to do this role with us, but unfortunately she can’t come to do it with us anymore.”

After looking forward to working with and learning from someone she holds in such high regard, this must have been a huge disappointment. But, says Mariette, she retains a clear picture in her memory of Burnise’s interpretation and will let that be her inspiration and guide. 

WATCH: Backstage with the Black Swan:

We are in a well-equipped dressing room in the innards of the Artscape theatre, where a dress rehearsal of the Cape Town City Ballet’s upcoming staging of Swan Lake is in full swing. Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music wafts gently through the intercom system, punctuated by loud bursts of sound in particularly dramatic passages. 

Mariette herself is an exotic vision in full stage make-up, wearing a beautiful black tutu and sparkling tiara; a thermal covering on her calves and feet make for an eclectic effect. 

But why two different dancers for a role which is most often portrayed by the same ballerina? Separating the roles of the White Swan (the beautiful princess who is turned into a swan by an evil magician) and the Black Swan (his dazzling daughter, who successfully impersonates the princess at a glittering ball and seduces the prince into pledging his troth to her by mistake) gives more dancers the chance to do a principal role, says Mariette.

“I think it would be the ultimate to do the White and the Black Swan at the same time, but it also gives me the opportunity to go on the stage.”

‘Ditch the cute image for something darker’

Despite the considerable technical demands of the role, Mariette admits that it was “very much the emotional, the character part” which gave her the most trouble. “In the beginning, management kept telling me I was too friendly and I needed to be darker.”

This, for someone whose previous roles included Thumbelina and Wendy in Peter Pan, meant shedding her cute image for something much more grown-up and sophisticated.

Right there and then Mariette gives some fascinating insights into interpreting the role. “You need to be charming with a smile but the eye lines can’t be up, they need to be all dark and underneath.” She demonstrates how to do it, and suddenly the stage persona slips into place and she’s not just a lovely girl in a tutu any more.

“And it musn’t be a big smile where you show all your teeth, it must be a small one,” again she demonstrates, and again the Black Swan makes a fleeting appearance. “She needs to be very charming and at the same time elegant, but then when the prince isn’t looking at her everyone can see that she’s dark and that she’s actually evil, that she’s not the elegant White Swan he’s supposed to be falling in love with and getting married to.”

I couldn’t resist asking whether she’d seen Natalie Portman’s take on the role. “Yes I have – it’s an amazing movie and she was really good in it.” But, says Mariette, it was maybe just a touch over-dramatic – “I don’t think it’s that evil!”.

How did she get into dancing? “Actually, I grew up on a farm so I was a tomboy. When we moved to the city my mother said ‘Okay, I already have a boy and I think you need to do some ballet just to bring the girl out’. I just stuck with it and I’m absolutely in love with what I’m doing.”

And if you’re taking your little one to dancing class, Mariette has some words of encouragement: “Ballet is very disciplined. From a very young age you need to be disciplined: the way you stand, the way you look – everything, and I think even if you’re not going to dance professionally one day, it still gives you that discipline and it’s good to have.”

If you want to have a professional dancing career, put everything you have into it, advises Mariette. “It’s not just about technically being the best - if you have something in your heart you want to give the audience, that will make them enjoy you the most. So just put your heart in it and go full out for it.”

Mariette feels this production of Swan Lake has something for everyone, and thinks it’s a good thing for potential theatre audiences to get out of their comfort zone. “I think it’s just a night out, away from your daily routine and all the stress and the hard work -  it’s something different,  it’s not the normal concerts most people always go to so I think the variety is very good.”

• The Cape Town City Ballet is performing Swan Lake at the Artscape Opera House from 2-18 June. Tickets at Computicket or at the box office.   

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