By BRUCE DENNILL
Joburg Ballet And Friends – A Dazzling Gala / Creative concept: Samantha Peo / Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways, Johannesburg 7
Put together as a vehicle to facilitate the introduction of Joburg Ballet to a wider audience, this one-off gala event brought together an exciting array of talent. The ballet company has long been obliged to spend the bulk of their performance time on stage at the Joburg Theatre as part of their funding arrangement with the City of Joburg – which is fair enough. But this collaboration means that the vision (shared by Joburg Ballet’s administrators and their many fans and supporters) to make a larger proportion of the city feel that they have a stake in the company is moved forward significantly.
Performing in a different geographical area is only part of the battle won, however, and the decision here to make the show an ambitious mix of movement and music and solo and ensemble moments was brave but effective – judging by the near-capacity crowd in the large theatre – in attracting an audience who may have little or no history with either ballet in general or Joburg Ballet specifically.
Singer and actress Samantha Peo’s concept, Grace And Grit: This Is The Stuff We Are Made Of, allowed for the introduction of a great deal of light and shade. Visually this was represented by harsh visuals projected on a giant screen, along with huge labels (detailing some of the deadly sins, among other things), countered by the elegance and beauty of the ballet dancers and vocalists. Aurally and lyrically, there were songs ranging from Nina Simone’s Feeling Good, Bob Marley’s Redemption Song and Sara Bareilles’ Brave on the positive side to Radiohead’s Creep, Labrinth’s Jealous and Queen’s Is This The World We Created?, representing more challenging perspectives.
With many of the Joburg Ballet’s followers in attendance, many of the loudest cheers came in response to the ballet segments, with the opening Swan Lake – With A Twist alerting the audience to the fact that this was not simply a laying out of the company’s repertoire. Best on the day was the Black Swan Pas de Deux, with Leusson Muniz’s impressive strength (he makes challenging lifts look effortless) providing the platform for soloist Claudia Monja to throw all of her considerable passion and expressiveness into the choreography. By the end of the sequence, she had the audience eating out of her hand. If etiquette allowed a ballerina to do a mic-drop, she would have as she exited the stage…
The vocalists (Peo, Angela Killian, Musanete Sakupwanya, Zubz The Last Letta, Timothy Moloi and Sibongile Mngoma) had a variably successful time of it. With this being a one-off without any previews or full technical run-throughs possible, it was evident that parts of some arrangements were somewhat under-rehearsed, though for the most part, experience allowed the performers to complete their segments without too many onlookers being the wiser.
Pick of that bunch was Musanete Sakupwanya, who performed material from a handful of genres with a purity of voice and tangible physical passion that allowed him to steal every segment he was in. Rapper and performance poet Zubz The Last Letta also deserves a mention, as he brought an infectious feeling of joy to each of his slots.
Peo’s version of Tomorrow from Annie, accompanied by youngsters from the Joburg Ballet School, was full of heart; Angel On My Shoulder, acrobatically performed by dancers Sanmarie Kreuzhuber and the musclebound Mahlatse Sachane, was striking; and Everything Is Beautiful At The Ballet (from A Chorus Line) underlined the pathos in the relationship between life and art. But arguably the highlight of the whole show was the mash-up of Habanera (from Carmen) and Rag ’n Bone Man’s hit Human, with Sakupwanya singing the latter and Mngoma handling the mezzo-soprano classical line, both singers surrounded by ballet dancers moving to Veronica Paeper’s choreography. It’s a standalone piece that should have plenty of legs if included in other gala events.
Conceptually, this was a fantastic event with an elaborate and creative programme. Headway has certainly been made in initiating a relationship between Joburg Ballet and a potentially new and larger audience, and in showcasing the talents of performers both established and relatively fresh on the scene. The occasional distraction of someone (singer, dancer, lighting engineer, sound technician) missing a cue or two was unfortunate, but in the context of there being limited time to stage the event, the final outcome was more than satisfactory.