Robyn Sassen

On celebrating new voices

Shannon Glover and Luis David Valle Ponce in La Bayadere. Photograph by Lauge Sorensen.

Shannon Glover and Luis David Valle Ponce in La Bayadere. Photograph by Lauge Sorensen.

Take a bunch of young people in their early 20s, many of whom have never been exposed to traditional European arts like classical ballet. Open their heads to a technical rehearsal of principal dancers for a work that hasn’t been stage in the city for more than 15 years. And what happens? Magic gets cast into the ether.

These extracts below, in no particular order, were written by 14 third year Fine Art students at the University of Johannesburg. Taking part in a five-week-long course that aimed to introduce them to the reality of arts writing, they each produced a piece of writing on site, in response to their experience of watching La Bayadere in rehearsal.

Luyanda Mpangele was completely seduced by the floor to ceiling window in Joburg Ballet’s rehearsal space at the Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein. “Cue music and the beauty reveals itself,” she writes. “All but the section in which the dancers are swirling and lifting is in saturated colour. A burst of energy, a narrative of love, a tragedy and a loss all shown through what looks to be effortless dancing. Little to no footsteps are heard and you get so lost in the synchronised music and dancing, that you forget that these people, like yourself, are grounded by gravity. Their bodies have been reshaped to become one with music and movement.”

“Flexible, tangible, graceful, soothing and so heavenly,” writes Lesley-Ann Julius. “Their bodies look like sculptures. Classical Greek sculptures.” She acknowledges “Ballet looks technical. Each step has to match every music beat. One can easily get lost in the dance, which is concentrated, intense and complicated. It is gracefully intense.”

Boitumelo Mazibuko compares the figures to drawings by Michelangelo. “The gracefulness of the moves comes from vigorous and impossible postures. Their love has to go through excruciating phases and this pain makes their story even more beautiful in the telling,” she adds, comparing the lifts, twists and collaborative enthusiasm to a well oiled machine “but with grace and poise.”

Jean Bollweg writes of “an abstract grace of natural smooth movement captured in the human figure, writing of poetry in movement.”

“One sees the importance of the body,” writes Theo Khuvutlu, “how the dancer works with the neck, head, shoulders and back, showing angles created with the body. The male dancers move differently from the female dancers. Their bodies and costumes seem softer on the audience’s eye: the musculature and jaggedness of the females in their tutus is harsh.”

Alvernia Morgan writes of how the dancers are swept into the moment. “They do not let their mistakes define them nor their successes.”

Jemma Dwyer is in awe of the physical strength of the performers, commenting on the breathlessness of each movement.

Writes Keilauren de Vries: “Music is the foundation of the art. It brings life to the dance. It channels through the dancers’ bodies, creating a duo of elegance and emotion. The art takes ownership of the dancers. They surrender their bodies and minds to the art to be sculpted into pristine art forms. Line, form, texture and repetition come together through the bodies of the dancers with obsessive consideration,” she adds, referring to the nature of the discipline as militant.

Pebofatso Mokoena considers the marks made by Vincent Van Gogh and Wassily Kandinsky as evocative of the “feast for the eyes” that the “energy agility and elegance of the human form presents.”

“If you have ever wondered what shape one’s breath may take on if it could manifest into a physical form, it would appear as a delicate, effortless dance between a prima ballerina and a danseur. Just as the body functions as an holistic entity, in which every cell, atom and organ operate on a subtle level of synchronicity and perfection, so too does the synergy, communication and synapses between the protagonists: ballet dancers, choreographer and composer, to reveal a complex configuration of self awareness, body consciousness and innate trust. The job of a professional ballet dancer is to communicate a sense of effortless agility, juxtaposed with disciplined control and tension through a perfected body language, akin to the whispering flutter of a hummingbird and the muscular power and freedom of a robust stallion. A sense of breathtaking mesmerising awe is projected onto the individual dancers while one’s ears are moved by nuanced orchestrated music, emotively guiding each physical succinct movement,” writes Jessica Doucha.

“Each move, curve and muscle is defined and recorded by mirrors, shadows and reflections of light which bounces around this immaculate space,” writes Robyn Jacobs, acknowledging the demanding yet beautiful nature of the dance and also commenting on the privilege of being able to be “let into a dancer’s private space.”

Daniella Gil considers the dancers’ movements “soft, swift and strong”, writing of how the show keeps the audience “intrigued and in awe”.

Also aware of the sacredness of the space, Nabeelah Abed writes, “The light bounces off the petite body of the lead dancer, Burnise Silvius. Watching her male counterpart carry her through the dance, creates a feeling of excitement and passion. During the dance, the chemistry felt between the dancers is uncanny. They become one, and they move as one. Their bodies intertwine to create a perfect balance of emotion and dance.”

Thinking of post-Impressionist painter Edgar Degas who painted series and series of ballerinas, Thina Dube writes, “I was drawn to how this art is very technical and requires long hours of dedication. It requires the ballerina to deliver those emotions with movement as well as tell a story with her whole body.”

La Bayadere is performed by the Joburg Ballet September 12-28, at the Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein. Visit for further details.

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