Polished fireworks for ballerinos and plastic girls

The Last Attitude - Mamela Nyamza- photo by John Hogg_ (2)

ME AND MY PLASTIC GIRL: Mamela Nyamza in The Last Attitude. Photograph: John Hogg

Silence is a complicated medium to use in contemporary dance. As is ballet. Particularly if it is being put under a rich loupe filtered with a deep understanding of gender binaries, 19th century European frills and trills and crazy little mannerisms that have become something looked up to with God-fearing respect by loyal audiences.

Veteran dancers who both started their careers in classical ballet, close to 20 years ago, Nelisiwe Xaba and Mamela Nyamza have pooled their considerable energies, talents and inner fires to create a fantastic piece of deeply polished work that unashamedly and relentlessly rips into the vulnerable underbelly of European culture and all the pretentious nuances it represents. They do so with the kind of sophistication, savvy and wisdom that doesn’t rubbish or disrespect the genre, but instead holds it – and our society – up to a telling and incisive mirror.

The Last Attitude teases out an understanding of the role of both genders in classical favourites like Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote and La Bayadère, and in doing so, it makes biting fun of the insipid, almost ghoulish female ensemble, and the emotionally piffling but physically taxing role of the male leads, but there’s a twist in the tale that opens up questions about gender and to a lesser extent, race, most compellingly.

European classical ballet brings with it relentless rules and a sense of order which is respected by dancers across the board as the most rigorous and fundamental training. Many of them have been outspoken in describing it as the best formative structure a dancer can get. But it brings with something else, that is equally rigid: Gender binaries. Whether you are a boy or a girl, ballet has a very specific uniform and characterisation for you. If you’re neither all boy nor all girl, but have a talent and a yearning for the discipline, what do you do?

While The Last Attitude has the kind of levity and wisdom that keeps even the most restless of audience members focused, it never stoops into a sense of victimhood: Taking a reflection on the politeness of ballet and ripping it to haunting shreds, Nyamza and Xaba are effectively doing what France-based performance artist Steven Cohen did in 2000 – only they’re working from within the ballet conventions and not from a position of “undance”.

They’re working from within the safety of the formal stage and not constructing their piece as dance guerrillas, and yet, the fierceness and the antagonism toward a whole litany of tradition that they articulate with their bodies, their costumes, their plastic mannequins and their gestures is made of the same kind of dynamite as Cohen’s.

The Last Attitude is an important work, not only for Dance Umbrella, but for the genre of contemporary dance. Along the lines of what Dada Masilo is doing in her oeuvre with the questioning, twisting and stretching of great classics, this work opens doors, asks questions and throws out exclamations. And yes, it’s very technical in how it is rendered, but the mesmerising presence of both dancers is simultaneously so pointed and poised that you hesitate to breathe as it might break the work’s impeccable silences.

  • The Last Attitude is choreographed and performed by Nelisiwe Xaba and Mamela Nyamza. It features work by Boyzie Cekwana (dramaturge), Oliver Hauser (lighting design), Carlo Gibson (costumes) and music by Tchaikovsky and Minkus. It is also performed by Amy de Wet, Samkelisiwe Dlamini, Megan Gottscho, Nthabiseng Modau, Jade Morey, Chanelle Olivier, Nicole Oriana, Kemelo Sehlapelo and Celia van Tonders. It performs at the Dance Factory in Newtown, until February 28, as part of Dance Umbrella 2016. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za

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 www.joburgtheatre.com for further details.