How to find your place in the world: RIP Maxine Denys

THREE’S company: (From left) Maxine Denys with Christiaan Danhoff and Dawn Weller in the pas de trois of Nicolas Beriosoff’s 1969 production of Swan Lake. Photograph by Bob Martin.

PETITE YET FEISTY, full of passion and dance knowledge, Maxine Denys held the flame for classical ballet with an innate sense of dynamite. But more than just dance technique, she was a woman of wit and charisma, who not only gave Sleeping Beauty’s Carabosse the verve she requires, but ignited the flame of passion for dance audiences, for decades. Denys succumbed to emphysema on 30 August 2019. She was 71.

To the world of ballet, she was Maxine Denys, renowned for her dramatic, impactful performances which stemmed from her strong passion for dance. To her close friends and family, she was Wendy Goldstein. Her small frame was well-equipped with the abilities needed to dazzle audiences.

Born in Mowbray, Cape Town on 2 January 1947, Denys showed signs of her talent as a toddler of just four years old. Growing up, she studied classical ballet and Spanish dance, and rose quickly to the notice of competition judges. By the age of 14, she had a string of trophies behind her.

In 1962, she won the RAD Eisteddfod Competition, and then auditioned for the visiting Royal Ballet Company. It was in this context that she won a R600 scholarship to study ballet in London, a considerable prize at the time. But her parents felt she was too young to move to a foreign country and should wait till she was a little older.

Which she did: When she turned 16, she made the decision to take that leap and pursue her dreams. London was her first stop, and it was where she made up her stage name “Maxine Denys”, in honour of her father, Maxwell Dennis Goldstein.

It was a key decision in her life, which happened at an important nexus in South Africa’s trajectory: South Africa had withdrawn from the Commonwealth, a couple of years earlier, in 1961. This effectively closed the door to Denys for travel to London, at the time. But, there was a loophole, which she was able to take advantage of, with legal assistance: her grandfather was born in the UK and this qualified her for a British passport. Denys was the last South African dancer, until the demise of apartheid, to join the Royal Ballet.

She danced with the Royal Ballet Company for four years, and learned to move through the ranks of strict dance hierarchy. She was a rapid learner with an intelligence that had as much to do with her intellect as her body’s memory.

Moving on from the Royal Ballet, she joined the London Festival Company, after which she moved back to South Africa and joined CAPAB (The Cape Performing Arts Board) and later became principal ballerina at PACT Ballet, a prestigious position in the South African ballet world. It was at PACT (the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal) that Denys’s career blossomed. She achieved critical acclaim, perfecting not only the choreographed steps, but also the idiosyncratic characters, in roles of the ilk of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, along with her dancing partner Keith Macintosh.

Her character performance as Aurora in Sleeping Beauty was always immaculate and regal, and she earned the moniker “a delicate snowdrop” from critics of the time. In 1971 she shared the role with another prominent ballerina, Margot Fonteyn at the Johannesburg Civic Theatre. She received the prestigious Lilian Solomon Award in Johannesburg, in 1976 for her performance of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. In 1981, for the first time in her career, she played the role of Carabosse – the slighted and evil fairy — in Sleeping Beauty, and stole the whole show with her persona, at the heart of the well-known story. Critics of the time concurred that it was a role made especially for her.

Her training as a classical ballerina, a specialist in the Royal Ballet method, was reflected in every performance. Her arabesque lines were clean, beautiful and pure and her feet were perfectly placed. Every time.

Her dedication to ballet never faulted, even after she sustained a major back injury. This resulted in her turning down prime roles and her eventual retirement from the stage in 1981.  After dancing for 31 years, physical degeneration took its toll on her, but it never hindered her love for ballet. After hanging up her pointe shoes, she started teaching and writing critically in the Rand Daily Mail, Beeld and the SA Jewish Report, on the topic of ballet.

Having a great and tough education in the arts, Denys had an eye for talent, grit and the curious ways in which old dance genres could (and couldn’t) be tweaked by contemporary dancers or choreographers. She always made sure that she recognised those who caught her attention.

While working at the Joburg Theatre as a publicist in the early 2000s, Denys was always the picture of elegance, be it in the way that she dressed, or the excitement and wonder she radiated on opening nights. The theatre was a sanctuary for her. Not only was she a vital part of the behind-the-scenes action, but she would also attend productions and recitals as an invited guest.

Her closest friends and family remember her as beautiful, radiant and magical onstage and off. In every sense of the term, Denys was a true ballerina; she had found her place in the world. Her contribution to the world of ballet will always be a shining example of work ethic and dedication. She leaves her beloved brother Stefan Goldstein and his family, close friends such as Stella Pike, Brian van Rheede and Geoffrey Neiman, as well as myriads of ballet fans and would be dancers who she inspired in her wake.

  • Zainab Choonara, in 2021, was a first year Fine Arts student at the University of Pretoria. She took part in VIT-101, a course which focused on arts writing, given by Robyn Sassen.

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