Dance – Pirouette perfect

Ballet is not for sissies.

Iain ­McDonald, the artistic director of the South African Ballet ­Theatre, has the scars to prove it. His hands bear the marks from the pin in his ­partner’s tutu that came loose during a performance, but no one in the audience was any wiser that the man doing all the heavy lifting was in agony.

At our photo shoot, principal dancer Burnise Silvius had an inflamed ingrown toenail. But there she was smiling and posing en pointe. “Oh, I’m used to it. I’ve got a double plaster on it. I call it my corn sandwich,” she says ­cheerfully when I ask whether she’s okay.

Lauren Dixon-Seager, the company’s ballet mistress and soloist, wonders what all the Survivor fuss is about in terms of hardship.

 “I’ve spent 35 minutes standing on one leg in the dark during Giselle. What’s the problem with balancing on a log on two legs? And I’ve been starving myself for years. What’s 30 days without food?” she says, laughing.

Becoming a full-time dancer in a country like ours, where the support for the arts is patchy at best, is a lot like ­Survivor. You have to outlast the hardships, the poor pay and the disparaging comments from those who know no better.

But Dixon-Seager says: “I’d do it again. You can’t put a monetary value on performing.”

Silvius found her passion for dance as a child, “when performances cost R2 and I saw all of them”. After 17 years as a professional dancer, the 35-year-old says there are no short cuts.

“It just gets harder the older you get. I think perhaps you learn how to use less ­energy. You know when to punch it and when to be more relaxed.”

Silvius will be one of the principals in the Christmas ballet The Nutcracker, but different cast members will alternate the roles.

The physicality required is too much to do night after night.

This is ­particularly the case for the male ­dancers, who have to hoist their ­partners into the air.

It may look effortless, but it requires a strength and stamina that most ­other sportsmen can only dream
of mastering.

“Of a 22-show run, a principal male dancer will do four. It’s hard on the body and particularly on the back,” says Dixon-Seager.

That is why there is much concern about the lack of male ballet dancers rising through the local ranks. For Carmen, two foreign male principals flew in and even now the company boasts a couple of dancers from abroad.

Our lack is their gain, Dixon-Seager explains. In their home countries, because of the number of male ballet dancers, they may wait years and years to dance ­principal roles. They come to South Africa to fast-track their careers.

But the company isn’t sitting back saying “woe are we”; it is attacking the problem at the root.

The academy provides top-class teachers to dancers who may well become part of the company in the future.

These young dancers, between the ages of 13 and 16, often swell the ranks when productions allow.

This gives them a feeling for live performance. Hopefully, the siren call of ­applause will keep them coming back.

The company also has outreach programmes in Soweto, Alexandra, Katlehong and Melville, where 250 children learn movement, body, spatial and language skills through regular ballet classes. The idea is for the best of these dancers to be nurtured to continue and to eventually be the next McDonald or Silvius, Anya Carstens or Angela Malan.

McDonald explains that they started the programme to develop their future audience base.

“This programme gets kids off the streets. It’s exposure too.

It’s the next audience base and if these youngsters don’t ­appreciate what we do, we will battle even more to keep this art form alive.”

While most children who join find joy in the discipline and focus required, many are put off as peer pressure starts to exert itself in their lives. ­

Unfortunately, not everyone has the strength of character to power through the teasing like cinema’s Billy Elliot.

This is why so many boys give up when they hit puberty.

Those who ­rubbish their craft don’t realise the athleticism needed to succeed.

It’s the hard work and strain that McDonald loves most about dancing.

“I never chose to be a dancer, but one thing led to another.

I started classes and I absolutely loved it. It’s the ­intensity and stress you put your body under. I loved that.

“People perceive this as a part-time job. They don’t understand the ­intensity. Dancers are like top athletes.

They have to train for endurance and strength. If you take a week off, it’s like you’ve never danced before. Our bodies are tools that have to
be maintained.”

McDonald, who matriculated from The School of the Arts in Braamfontein – across the road from the company’s studio – started with the then ­Performing Arts Council of the ­Transvaal, or Pact, but in 2000, after the closure of the State Theatre, the dancers were out of work.

After an inauspicious start (the ­recently retrenched dancers were ­commissioned for a job and were never paid), McDonald and a group of fellow ballet dancers – most of whom are still with the company – decided to make a go of an independent ballet company.

All of us should be thrilled about that decision. We can all enjoy world-class ballet performances as a result.

But putting on brand new ballets isn’t possible without funding. One new tutu costs between R6 000 and R8?000.

Just the Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker, this year’s Christmas ballet, has 10 women in tutus.

Thankfully, the company is able to source the sets and costumes from the State Theatre.

In numerous warehouses, all the ­tutus a ballerina could hope for are stored, but only from productions that have previously been staged.

“No ballet company anywhere in the world survives on box office,” says ­Dixon-Seager. “Putting on The ­Nutcracker is costing R2.5 million.

We do smaller corporate gigs to bankroll the big productions.”

During our interview, the company was preparing to fly to Zimbabwe to perform Act II of Swan Lake at a wedding.

Dixon-Seager is philosophical about what purists may call prostituting their art. “Across the board, artists have to do what they have to do.

 I’ve seen Craig Urbani as a moving mannequin. We can put anything en pointe, and we try and costume and choreograph to any required theme.

Ballet is a universal language, so wherever you live and whoever you are, you can get it.”

Dixon-Seager only does soloist roles these days. She says she’s too old to get into a tutu and compete with an 18-year-old (it’s not true). She also has a thousand other jobs to do off stage, like learning every step of every ballet the company stages.

She’s the cleaner who makes sure that they never put a foot wrong. One of the ways she does this is by watching DVDs. From this, she notates every step of choreography.

So if a scene she is watching has 20 dancers in it, she has to watch it 20 times at least – one viewing for each dancer.

Notating one minute of dance can take three hours.

But Dixon-Seager shrugs when I marvel at the kind of hard work each and every one puts in – either ­performing or preparing. To look ­effortless, this much work has to go ­into it, she says.

“The audience don’t want to know how hard it is.

They go to wrestling for that.”

» The Nutcracker runs at the State Theatre from November 19 to December 19.
0 083 915 8000

»? So you think you can dance? Give it a go at The South African Ballet Theatre’s ­studios in Hoofd Street, Braamfontein, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6pm. ­

Beginners wel come. 0 011 877 6898

» Visit for a video and more pictures

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