By BRUCE DENNILL
Keeping a ballet company alive is a challenge at the best of times. Doing so through a pandemic is an achievement worth celebrating. And perhaps the best way to celebrate is to return to the stage, equipped with new works from choreographers both in and outside the company.
Act One begins with classical ballet, happily something that many audience members will be less familiar with than the usual tent pole productions. Featuring original choreography by Vakhtang Chabukiani (for St Petersburg’s Kirov Ballet) and updated by ex-Joburg Ballet soloist Bruno Miranda, Laurencia tells the story of a peasant revolution and blends Spanish folk (including flamenco) and classical dance. Excerpts from the ballet’s second act showcase various company combinations, with the flair of the movement underlined by striking costumes and the use of tambourines.
That flamboyant thread is continued in both pianist Rocco de Villiers’s appearance and his playing as he provides an interlude between the second work on show, Mario Gaglione’s (who joined Joburg Ballet as a soloist last year) The Silent Wanderer. The piece is Gaglione’s interpretation of the impact of the COVID-19 virus on the world in general and perhaps his individual perspective in particular.
As a soloist for this piece, Mahlatse Sachane fully realises the promise he has shown since signing up with the company as an aspirant dancer some years ago. He combines extraordinary muscle definition – further highlighted by stark lighting – with forceful, confident steps as the focal point of corps work that variously suggests the reaction of a body to infection, the loss of life caused by the pandemic and a tribute to those who have survived. The costumes are plain but effective, allowing for an emphasis on attractive contemporary choreography.
Act Two begins with I Am Woman by Joburg Ballet soloist Craig Pedro. The work features – unsurprisingly, given that it is a celebration of women and their power, sensitivity and beauty – an all-female cast in elegant all-white costumes with glittering trim. To a soundtrack of Chopin and Audionautix, overlaid with a poem by Shameelah Kahn, the cast (for the performance reviewed, Nicole Ferreira-Dill was an elegant, graceful lead) combine moments of restrained, contemplative movement with more dynamic, vigorous combinations.
After another energetic interlude from Rocco de Villiers, the production closes with a new work from innovative Kiwi choreographer Corey Baker, who came to South Africa recently to work with Joburg Ballet at their studios. Called Grey, the piece interrogates the idea – and importance – of breaking established boundaries and rules when it comes to race and similarly sensitive topics. The staging creates layers – in the appearance of the floor and the lighting used – that bustle with dancers following different paths throughout. The use of props including umbrellas and sand (loads of sand; it gets messy) adds interest, nuance and action, crescendoing as the piece nears its end.
For long-term Joburg Ballet fans, Ballet & Beyond offers a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with favourite dancers and to be introduced to the version of the company that has not only managed to come through a trying year of lockdown but which is moving forward with imagination and drive.