One giant leap

Artistic director of South African Mzansi Ballet, Iain MacDonald, on the progress of ballet in Johannesburg

I did not grow up dreaming of becoming a principal dancer, nor artistic director of South Africa’s premiere ballet company. And yet it seems that my destiny was decided after making my stage debut, aged 11, in the annual school production at Bordeaux Primary School. After which I was advised to audition for the Johannesburg School of Art, Ballet, Drama and Music. I matriculated with ballet as a major subject followed by a successful audition for PACT Ballet in 1991.

Joining PACT Ballet was a shock to the system. Each day was a new experience and an opportunity to be able to push my body further. There was always one more correction, one more word of advice from a coach, building a strong technique one tendu at a time. I was fortunate to move through the ranks quickly, achieving a position as principal soon thereafter.

This ranking gave me the opportunity to perform some of the greatest classical and neo classical and contemporary works in the PACT repertoire. These included roles in David Bintley’s Still Life at Penguin Café, Val Caniparoli’s Lambarena, Ronald Hynd’s Merry Widow, and Balanchine’s Rubies and Who Cares? for which I worked closely with Patricia Neary.

At the peak of my performing career, an unexpected and not very welcome event occurred. State Theatre Ballet (as PACT Ballet was then called) was closed. The entire ballet company disbanded, the rights to the repertoire were lost, along with the costumes, sets and stage designs. This was a major loss, not only to the dance community and audience, and I took it very personally.

Principal dancers Angela Malan, Karen Beukes and I were then approached by Esther Nasser, (ex-artistic director of PACT Dance/State Theatre Company, also previously based at the State Theatre) who asked us to consider presenting our own version of The Nutcracker. This production premiered in Pretoria in December 2000 and was well supported.

Soon after I was married to Karen and towards the end of our wedding celebrations (and bolstered by confidence gained from the success of The Nutcracker), some of our guests and ex-State Theatre Ballet dancers lingered and we came up with the crazy idea of starting our own ballet company. We asked our fellow dancers and friends to join us, and the brave souls who agreed, did class and rehearsed, and received no salary.

Giselle opened in March 2001 and was another success, the experiment proved that we should indeed continue to pursue our passion to keep professional classical ballet alive in our country. We had no idea what we were in for, and our naivety proved to be helpful. And so began the The South African Ballet Theatre (SABT).

The six founding members, Karen, Angela, Dirk Badenhorst, Fiona Budd, Kimbrian Bergh and I, soon found we had to acquire new skills quickly. I remember an early board meeting where a member was sewing ribbons onto her pointe shoes. We had taken ourselves out of our comfort zone – the studio – and into boardrooms, government and corporate offices. Although we enjoyed the support of a core group of avid balletomanes, we also found ourselves dealing with potential funders who had never seen a ballet, and had little idea of why it was so important to us.

In 2004, state-of-the-art studios were built for the company at the Joburg Theatre and my wife Karen and I relocated to Johannesburg. By this stage SABT had become a recognised brand enjoying good houses and positive media reports. However, sourcing sustainable funding remained problematic. Funding of the arts took on a new model under the first democratically elected government of 1994 and we could not rely on the support enjoyed by PACT Ballet or the State Theatre Ballet.

We had to source funding from unlikely sources and be as creative as possible. A plan which did come together was the merger between South African Ballet Theatre and Mzansi Productions in 2012.The merger has given us a stronger voice with which to apply for funding, enlarged our repertoire, and expanded our audience base. Each production presents many challenges to the dancers and artistic staff, but keeping our doors open has been the biggest challenge over the past four years.

Classical ballet is often perceived in South Africa as an elitist art form solely for the white community. We have gone to great lengths to dispel this. South African Mzansi Ballet offers free ballet lessons to children living in disadvantaged areas such as Mamelodi, Olifantsfontein, Soweto, Alexandra and Sophiatown. A small group also receive additional training at our Braamfontein studios in the Cuban ballet training method. We keep our ticket prices as low as possible, just ZAR50 (€4.50), and always perform at a venue on a public transport route. Often, there are very few facilities but the show goes on nonetheless.

South Africa still has much to redress from its Apartheid past; education, healthcare and housing are areas which need greater improvement. We strongly believe in the benefits of ballet training and have seen firsthand the success that this training has had in bridging borders and bringing communities closer together.

I believe the ballet studio is a great leveller: dancers are all equal in their workspace, regardless of whether they arrived at the studio in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, or via public transport. I see the enormous amount of talent in the SAMB development programme and in private ballet schools, and feel inspired to ensure that they too have the opportunities I had: working with great choreographers, dancers and musicians; travelling locally and internationally; being inspired, mesmerised, captivated and transformed and ultimately speaking the same language of dance.

Dance was one of the very first sectors to transform in South Africa and I have vivid memories of attending ‘secret’ rehearsals as a member of the Johannesburg Youth Ballet with black dancers, long before we were allowed to share the stage on a public platform. I have first-hand experience of this ability to communicate through the dance, and it is my duty to share its effect with the dancers in the company and the community.