Dance Review: Joburg Ballet – Evolve, Or Then, Now And The Future

March 26, 2022

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Joburg Ballet: Evolve / Artistic Director: Iain MacDonald / Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg


Celebrating both the company’s 21st anniversary (taking in all the different conformations it’s assumed during that time) and its return to a major stage after two years of pandemic-enforced absence, Joburg Ballet’s new production, Evolve, is well-named, showcasing as it does both classical ballet (the Paquita Grand Pas) and varied original contemporary work (Legae, choreographed by Tumelo Lekana; The Afterlife: Souls, choreographed by Shannon Glover; and The Game, choreographed by Mario Gaglione).

It’s a generous programme, with pleasing variety and investment from the dancers – the whole company is involved at various levels, and the stamina and focus required is considerable. The score for the Paquita segments requires quick, challenging footwork, with the newly promoted Cristina Nakos and senior soloist Ruan Galdino being the pick of the dancers before the first interval.

In Act Two, Legae involves a large cast of dancers, as well as vocalists Lerato Gwebu and Gift Thulani Mothusi and – not something seen often during a dance performance – a percussionist playing live (the very able Mpho Peter Mothiba). A tribute to Lekana’s mother, who contracted and then recovered from COVID-19 (“legae” means “home” in Setswana), the piece includes, in its costumes, music and rhythms, multiple links to Lekana’s heritage, which the choreographer hopes will make it accessible and attractive to new fans from communities to whom ballet’s more established traditions still feel distractingly different. In much of the piece, the men and women dance in separate groups – there are no solos – which helps to highlight the collective strength of Joburg Ballet’s current crop of male dancers.

Glover’s The Afterlife: Souls, also part of Act Two, is an entirely different assignment: slow, sensuous, drenched in smoky purple light and featuring only four dancers – principal dancer Nicole Ferreira-Dill, newly promoted principal dancer Monike Cristina (who excels with the mixture of classical and contemporary styles here) and freshly promoted pair Armando Barros and Gabriel Fernandes. Both men are tall and muscular, capable of impressive and creative lifts, which the choreography demands. But muscle is beautifully balanced with grace throughout the piece, with the measured pace and emotive soundtrack helping to create a delicate, genuinely captivating piece.

After a second interval, the show closes with The Game, with the choreography playing out on a massive chessboard mat installed with impressive speed while the audience is out having a drink. Cristina (as “Life”), Ferreira-Dill (as the “White Queen”) and Fernandes (as the “Black King” draw the eye in the lead roles, but the piece involves a number of stylistically different elements that give its large cast plenty to do. The narrative – loosely, it involves imagined parallels between chess and life – is a touch disconnected, but strong visuals and imaginative movement keep the piece moving apace.

As proof that hardship can inspire as well as test, Evolve establishes that Joburg Ballet, now of age, continues to mature and connect with audiences impressively.

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