By BRUCE DENNILL
Big City, Big Dreams / Directed by Fiona Ramsay / Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
There’s a school of thought that says too much classical ballet can be a touch too conservative and clichéd. And there’s another that considers contemporary dance and believes it to be too esoteric to be worth investing intellect in. Both are regrettably short-sighted.That said, it is a considerable risk to deviate from a formula that defines a group of dancers, and more so when three separate dance companies leave their comfort zones to collaborate on a new original work, set in and celebrating Johannesburg (not Fosse’s Chicago, Laurents’ New York or Nijinsky’s St Petersberg, which are among the many locations more regularly fêted).
Featuring three choreographers – Shannon Glover of Joburg Ballet, Lulu Mlangeni of Vuyani Dance Theatre and Sunnyboy Motau of Moving Into Dance Mophatong – Big City, Big Dreams demands of the dancers from all three companies the ability to integrate three distinct sets of ideas and movements into a seamlessly assimilated narrative. The story centres on frustrated businessman Muzi (Vuyani Dance Theatre’s Phumlane Mndebele) and Zara (Claudia Monja of Joburg Ballet) and their developing romance, played out in a variety of recognisably local settings including the Joburg Ballet studio, a rainy jacaranda-lined street, a football stadium (yes!), a heaving club and a theatre.
Much of this – the effortless switching from place to place and the familiarity of the locations – is made possible by Wilhelm Disbergen’s inspired set and lighting design, the central element of which is a gigantic mirror slanted towards the audience and thus reflecting some of the dancers from above and doubling the well-chosen projections depicting the different scenes in which the action takes place.
The mirror has the obvious effect of increasing the apparent space in which the dancers operate, but it also adds an extra artistic layer. For instance, in a scene where ballerinas in tutus are warming up, the reflection of them from above recalls a Degas painting or something similarly evocative.
The dancers are challenged by the quick-fire changes and the technical adjustments they need to make to styles they will have been drilled in for years. They respond superbly, with specialists standing out for what they do most naturally (elegant interludes in which four or six ballet dancers perform an ensemble piece; or the high-energy street dance of a trio of MIDM artists), but gelling incredibly as a collective. It’s worth harping on about this aspect of the production slightly, as the three independent companies involved all have packed schedules, often involving travel, and to get to this level of understanding and artistic empathy while juggling all of those individual schedules is impressive. Add to that the fact that all three companies were working with director Fiona Ramsay – well-known and respected for her work in dramatic theatre, not necessarily dance – for the first time, and the slickness becomes even more remarkable.
The choice of music by the choreographers is fantastic, mixing instrumental versions of popular songs from the likes of Adele and Bonnie Raitt with lively club tunes and original compositions by composer Nik Sakellarides. This has the effect of giving different components of the audience moments in which they recognise something they love, just before being exposed to something new that, in tandem with the fresh, lithe movements danced to its rhythms, quickly works its way into their psyches.
Big City, Big Dreams is brave, fresh, beautiful and very easy to watch for anyone who has little or know knowledge of the any or all of the various types of dance involved. It is, to take all the technical aspects out of it for a second, capable of making you feel joy – and that in itself is a meaningful achievement.
Editorial Note: Joburg Ballet is often subjected to commentary about the narrow range of its repertoire, in which it is mentioned that the classical ballets that, unsurprisingly, come up every so often on the rota are some version of “staid” or “repetitive”. And yet, when the company (or others like it elsewhere in the industry) make a concerted effort to add creativity and sparkle to their programmes, those same commentators often decline to buy tickets, stating – without irony – that they won’t attend this time because they “have no idea what the show is about”. If you are someone who finds this description uncomfortable to read and has not bought, or is not planning to buy, a ticket for Big City, Big Dreams – regardless of how successful it turns out to be – please don’t describe yourself as a “supporter of the arts”. That’s fake news.