By BRUCE DENNILL
Joburg Ballet soloist Shana Dewey started with the company, then the South African Ballet Theatre, when she joined company’s Junior Academy as a 13-year-old. That allowed for the odd appearance in a peripheral role in one of their productions. It’s been a long journey to Snow White, their last production for 2017, in which Dewey has been cast as one of the four dancers to play the title role.
“I remember starting as an extra,” says Dewey, “but about two years ago, I started being put in the bracket cast for principal roles. To start with, those require you to learn the role, but knowing that, because you might be too young or not mature enough, you’re unlikely to actually dance the role.
“It was a long journey to there and on to where I am now, and one that’s been tough to stick it out all the way through. Being cast to dance Snow White has been incredible – I’m still in shock, but so happy. It’s all still part of a learning curve, too. There are other dancers ahead of me in the run, so I don’t get to dance too many shows, but I’m so grateful for those, which are part, I think of managing my growth – pushing me into areas where I am really challenged.”
As a soloist, Dewey has filled in for principal dancers before, but is enjoying the perks that come with her station for this piece.
“I’m loving getting to work on my own in rehearsals,” notes Dewey, “and working with Iain [Joburg Ballet artistic director Iain Macdonald] and teachers like Burnise [recently retired prima ballerina Burnise Silvius] by myself has been incredible. They’ve helped me bring out the small actions that make a role like this your own. It’s not like dancing in the corps de ballet, where things have to be uniform, or even like performing a solo, where everything is set in a certain way.
“Here, there are so many scenes that call for so many reactions – happy, curious, terrified, dying … I really need to make sure that I’m able to fully imagine what the character is seeing and what makes her react the way she does. Andrew Botha’s set designs really help on stage, but I find it challenging when I’m facing the audience and I need to imagine that they’re also a forest, or part of a different world”
The experience of friends and mentors helps fill in the gaps.
“Burnise gave me some great advice; told me what she would do when preparing for a role,” says Dewey. “She said to play the music at home, while performing in front of a mirror, and then to do the same thing without a mirror – and then go back to the mirror to check what works and what doesn’t.”
“The movements – the choreography – should be in my body now. I need to be able to forget about that to some degree. That’s what I’ve learned my whole life. You don’t really get taught the acting part; the way to be your own character. To do that, you need to block people out, which can be embarrassing, but it has to be done to be both fully an actor and fully a principal dancer. If I stress too much about technique, which I have done in the past, it shows on my face and things go wrong, as it affects my partner as well. It’s a bit edgy sometimes!”
Dewey, in the course of her training, attended both the National Ballet School in Cuba and the English National Ballet – two very different institutions in terms of both their teaching methods and styles and in the cultures that influence their dancers.
“In Cuba, I stayed in a very rural place, next door to the ballet teacher,” Dewey recalls. “We’d always go straight to class and straight back home, with no time out, which was probably for the best – I was the only blonde in Cuba, I think!
“We worked very hard in the classes there – you’d bulk up quite a bit. There were little shows every week, which I loved. It was great stage experience, learning different roles – tough but brilliant. I did feel very isolated – there was only one call home a week there versus the full-time social media connection we have now. And the pas de deaux classes were really hard. That was all fairly new to me then and I remember almost landing on my head a few times. Outside of the studio, the culture includes a lot of dancing – I wish I had been able to experience more of it.”
England was very different, but no less valuable.
“When I was there, the company had no director for a year, which was a problem,” reflects Dewey. “I was involved in a production called My First Sleeping Beauty, which we toured. I didn’t have a lot of experience, so it was really useful to learn new roles. And it was incredibly exciting to wear the English National Ballet costumes, some of which had the names of the famous ballerinas they were made for in them.
“There were a huge number of talented dancers there, so it was very competitive. When I saw how good they were, it knocked my confidence quite badly. It took me a couple of years to get back to where I was before that. I’m not a competition person. Some people are. I’m just not.”
Later, it was time to return to Johannesburg, where the now rebranded Joburg Ballet awaited her.
“I joined the company,” Dewey says, “and worked for a while without a contract. Again, there was a new learning curve. I was cast all over the place, and I started developing relationships with the teachers and other dancers. The dancers have changed over the years, but there are many who I’ve known for a long time, who are friends and who I always learn from.”
Dewey is very disciplined; an incredibly hard worker. How does she factor ambition into her work ethic and relationships?
“I’m a very nice person,” smiles Dewey. “Sometimes I get stood on. But I’m a very ambitious person, too, and I’ll do whatever it takes to get where I want to be. I’m very retentive – I work lunch-times and get stressed about scheduling and losing my spot in the studio to someone else.”
Recently, Dewey suffered her first major injury. What sort of routine change did that require?
“It happened last year, during our production of Giselle,” says Dewey. “I left it; hoped it would get better, but it didn’te. Eventually, the only option was an operation, which meant I had to be off for six months. It was unfortunate timing, as I’d just been bracket cast for the lead in Cinderella.
“It was frustrating when I couldn’t do anything. I stayed away from work for some time – emotionally, it was too tough. When I could start being active again, I listened exactly to the doctor and did everything he said. It was December and I was away on holiday, doing barre work in the place we were staying! Now I have weekly physiotherapy, just to make sure, and I take anti-inflammatories when I need to.
“When our production of La Traviata came around, I was cast, quite late, for the Gypsy Dance, and that became one of the highlights of my career, coming from where I had been to there.”
Snow White is not one of the major classical ballet heroines. That may give Dewey a greater opportunity to create a definitive version of the role. Does that mean more freedom or more pressure?
“It’s very important to show the innocence of Snow White,” suggests Dewey. “I can relate – I never see the bad in people – so that allows me to go all out and be myself; to show a bit of Shana in Snow White.
“In terms of tradition, there’s not as much in the Snow White archives as there is for Swan Lake or something like that, but you can look at different ballets to get different ideas, like the Mad Scene in Giselle for when she’s frightened. It’s important, for example, to make sure that you actually look terrified when you think you look terrified,
“I have to make sure I get into Snow White’s bubble, not mine. But I’ll get ready the same way on the night: warming up a 100 times; touching my shoes in a certain way – it’s weird, but I find it helps; getting my breathing right’ and then stepping onto stage.”
What are the highlights of the role?
“I love the terrace scene, moving into the forest pas de deux,” smiles Dewey. “The music is stunning, and I think the body movements are really natural. It almost feels like it’s not choreographed – they’re actions I can relate to in real life. Dancing with the animals is a lot of fun – particularly reacting to what they’re doing. And the wedding scene is very exciting.”
Joburg Ballet’ Snow White – The Ballet runs at Joburg Theatre from 13 to 22 October. Shana Dewey dances the title role on Tuesday 17 October at 11:00 and Friday 20 October at 19:30.