By BRUCE DENNILL
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the South African International Ballet Competition (SAIBC), founded by Dirk Badenhorst. That’s a notable achievement, given the challenges inherent in funding such an event and organising its cosmopolitan line-up of judges and competitors.
“The format has stayed the same since we started,” says Badenhorst. “I’ve never taken on board comments like, ‘but others do this’. We don’t accept a huge number of entries – we want everyone who comes to have a good time. That comes through in the feedback we get, too. People – the competitors and the team who organise everything – always talk about having a sense of community.”
The ballet is obviously the focus, but there’s more to the SAIBC than that.
“The networking aspect is so important,” nods Badenhorst. “Of the kids who are dancing in the competition now, one will be a principal dancer in 10 years time, while another will be a ballet master. If those relationships are built now, it will help everyone then.”
That’s not just conceptual theory, either.
“One of the judges this year is from Latvia,” says Badenhorst. “She danced in the first competition in 2008, and came second. The continuity is wonderful. Artscape has remained the event’s home, and the National Lotteries Commission has made this year’s competition possible.”
Being 10 years old also adds a different level of brand integrity to the SAIBC. Observers see a number like that and immediately make assumptions about sustainability and quality that really help with keeping the event in the spotlight.
“I have been very fortunate,” ventures Badenhorst, “that my personal brand is still seen as a strong entity internationally. And again, the continuity is a strong point. Without that type of foundation, most international ballet competitions struggle for longevity. Also, the competitors see the SAIBC as more than just an opportunity to dance. There’s a sense of goodwill – we’ve had many winners donate their winnings to ballet teachers in township communities. Even some of the more notorious dancers go home having seen what’s needed to develop South African ballet and started fund-raising campaigns.
“I must always ask the question: what is the value of a competition like this? For me, when I was travelling around the world and seeing development programmes that weren’t yet happening in South Africa, I was worried. Now we are able to do that ourselves, exposing our young dancers to international talent and giving visiting dancers a launchpad to go on to even bigger things abroad.”
The judging panel is eclectic, featuring experts from Switzerland, the US, China, South Korea and Latvia, among other countries.
“We also have South African judges, and that’s incredibly important,” says Badenhorst. “We always want good ballet schools to be represented, so we can be able to give kids scholarships. And of course we need international companies represented; places where dancers can get contracts down the line.
“It can’t just be an academic, theoretical exercises either. We try to mix up schools of thought in terms of style and training, so it’s not all just Chinese or Korean or Cuban or American.”
It’s all of this, then – rather than the glamour and excitement – that really make such competitions matter?
“The scholarships and positions in companies are the most important outcome, along with the networking,” agrees Badenhorst. “There are benefits of that view that might seem selfish as well, of course. Our Latvian judge Elsa, who attended as a dancer, is now sending dancers from her country, which helps extend our reach.”
Presumably, the dancers appreciate the impact doing well could have on their careers?
“Dancers who do well at the SAIBC know they’re good,” says Badenhorst. “We always try to bring together the best of the best from that particular year. We also consider – in consultation with the dancers’ parents and teachers – whether the toughness of the competition will be a good thing for them as individuals. One dancer might benefit from competing above their current level and coming last, but the same result might crush someone else. And we have to look at the future of SA ballet in general, which means giving new dancers a chance.”
There are checks and balances, which may smack of tough love to some.
“We have a system where the jury can throw someone out after the first day,” explains Badenhorst. “It happens very rarely, but it was designed to help with perspective. For instance, you may have someone coming in from an outlying area who is easily the best in their community who comes in and realises that they may still need to work hard to achieve the level we’re looking for.”
The performance centrepiece at this year’s SAIBC is a piece called Bengingazi, choreographed by Adele Blank. It’s a combination of ballet, neo-classical dance and pantsula. There’s obvious novelty and tourism value in presenting such a piece when so many foreigners are in attendance, but is there more to it than that? Can pantsula be positioned as an export?
“We want people to come here and learn pantsula,” grins Badenhorst. “It’s also time to honour South African art and dance, which is difficult to do if we don’t see it on a stage where these things are benchmarked. Culture shouldn’t be on stage as culture in the official sense. It can be boring. We need to put it on stage – and respectfully; seeing it as an art form. The filmmakers of Inxeba have done a great job of that, for example.
“Look at shows like Lord Of The Dance. Many Irish people initially hated what Michael Flatley was doing with their traditional dance. But before he did what he did, those traditions were not nearly as well known around the world.
“Bengingazi is a start for us in terms of that sort of integration. Watching it, it’s fascinating to see ballet, pantsula and flamenco dancers all using different rhythms within the same time signature, and figuring out how to blend it all together.”
After the SAIBC, Badenhorst is taking Bengingazi to Legends Golf & Safari Resort in Limpopo for a performance titled Ballet In The Bush. In the bigger picture, do such events create an alternate model for career dancers who might not have a chance to work with a company in a big city?
“I would love to make this event into a festival,” muses Badenhorst. “This particular venue is two-and-a-half hours from Johannesburg. It’s remote. That’s important, because in general, nobody cares about the remote places – where our future artists, doctors, and maybe presidents will come from. Single big centres sometimes allow for laziness, and taking things for granted.”
What is the direct impact of what is still a relatively isolated event in presenting a new career opportunity for youngsters, though?
“At this point, it’s about the importance of raising awareness of the opportunity for a career in dance, and in that respect the local ballet teachers really help, by bringing their kids to watch the show. The company this year includes Mzansi Ballet dancers as well as visiting Korean dancers, which helps youngsters to understand international standards and how we are meeting them.”
The SAIBC and its spin-offs are only the beginning of the process.
“It’s so important to work with the teachers in those areas; to try and give them a model on which to build a business and earn an income,” agrees Badenhorst. “If we can find great talent, we can train the dancers. There’s a lot to look forward to.”
The South African International Ballet Competition takes place at Artscape in Cape Town from 27 February to 4 March. Ballet In The Bush takes place at Legends Golf & Safari Resort on 10 March. Book at Computicket.