This dramatic ballet tells the twisted tale of a dark family secret – and it’s based on real life

Chante Daniels and Mbulelo Jonas in Transfigured Night. (Photo: Supplied/Cape Town City Ballet)
Chante Daniels and Mbulelo Jonas in Transfigured Night. (Photo: Supplied/Cape Town City Ballet)

Eugenie du Preez spoke to the Cape Town City Ballet’s Veronica Paeper to find out the story behind the ballet ‘Transfigured Night’.

Cape Town - Love, loss, jealousy and a tragic event – the Cape Town City Ballet’s production of Transfigured Night has it all. It’s a tale that will resonate with many South Africans who have been touched by a family drama.

A young girl’s dreams of a blissful future with her lover are brutally shattered by a shocking act of violence, brought on by an embittered elder sibling.

Renowned SA choreographer Veronica Paeper, who is producing the ballet for the company, tells how a seed was planted in her late husband Frank Staff’s imagination that led to the creation of the work.

While on tour in the US with a British ballet company sometime during the late 1940s, Staff was taken to have tea with two elderly ladies who lived in a crumbling mansion. The younger sister seemed slightly deranged, and they had a brother who was in a mental institution.

“It was an enormous house with vast grounds, completely run down and very spooky,” says Paeper.

“There was a rumour in town that something rather awful had happened at the house, because of the brother being locked away in an asylum.

“Frank mulled this strange story over in his brain and years later, when he heard Arnold Schoenberg’s composition Verklärte Nacht, it suddenly all clicked together and made absolute sense.

“When you see the ballet, the story and the choreography fit together so beautifully with the music that it’s unbelievable,” says Paeper, who has herself danced the roles of both the elder and younger sister.

The curtain opens on the backdrop of what should have been a gorgeous mansion but instead looks dark and menacing, with closed shutters and an air of neglect.

Dressed in frothy pink and white with pink ribbons streaming from her hair, the younger sister is the picture of youthful innocence and charm. She brings home a lover to introduce to her family, and later joyfully shows off her engagement ring. But this triggers an unexpected reaction.

“The elder sister is filled with all sorts of angst – jealousy, envy and the fact that she wants to keep her family together, because they’re the last of an old, aristocratic line.”

Wearing funereal black and with hair severely scraped back, the elder sister cuts a sinister figure. Her movements clearly convey her mounting distress and alarm, as well as the sheer fatigue of keeping the family legacy alive. She works on the brother, soberly suited in black, until he carries out her wishes, bringing the ballet to its dramatic climax.

The younger sister’s hopes of escaping from her claustrophobic family and having children of her own are dashed, and she is forced to live out her life with the siblings who denied her the chance of happiness. 

‘Like a scary movie’

“The work is beautifully crafted and the steps and movements convey the mood so clearly. I think if you like to be scared by a movie, this is a ballet that will give you that kind of feeling,” says Paeper.

Is the ballet fact or fiction? “I don’t know if it’s the truth or not – it’s what Frank thought up out of the story,” confesses Paeper.

Speaking of the dramatic events that unfold in the ballet, she says: “I believe the story goes that they couldn’t prove anything; it just happened and nobody could understand how. In those days you weren’t allowed into these big aristocratic houses; they didn’t have forensics and detectives and there was absolutely no kind of investigation - this must have been right at the beginning of the century.”

Transfigured Night is one of the works featured in the Cape Town City Ballet’s triple bill Amaranth under its new CEO, Debbie Turner.  “The amaranth is an imaginary flower that never fades or dies,” explains Turner. The name symbolises the timeless and unfading beauty of ballet and the Cape Town City Ballet.

“The programme gives you a really great evening’s entertainment with three extremely good ballets,” says Paeper. The first work, Serenade, is a modern classic by George Balanchine. “It’s pure, wonderful movement to wonderful music,” says Paeper. But it was the third ballet, Christopher L. Huggins’ Enemy at the Gates, that had the opening night audience quite literally on their feet. Intensely rhythmic and energetic with splicing movements and echoes of hip-hop, it is a stunning work sure to appeal to a wide audience.

Amaranth will be performed at the Artscape opera house until 7 July. Tickets cost from R150 to R495, and the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra will accompany selected performances. Bookings at Dial-A-Seat on (021) 421 7695, Computicket or any Shoprite Checkers outlet.

Veronica Paeper directs Claire Spector in rehearsa

(REHEARSAL: Veronica Paeper directs Claire Spector in rehearsal for Transfigured Night. Photo: Supplied/Cape Town City Ballet)