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The March To Decolonization

Updated on February 22, 2017
Photo courtesy: Dance For All
Photo courtesy: Dance For All

Redefining ballet in Africa

When The Times reported in November that Cape Town City Ballet had been “booted out” of the University of Cape Town’s School of Dance studios because ballet is considered “too colonial”, there was an outraged flurry across social media as people reacted in shock to the sudden ending of the 82-year partnership. Denials by various spokespeople from both groups landed on deaf ears, and as recently as the end of December, the misreporting was still gaining traction.

Days after the initial report, Cape Times posted an article stating the City Ballet faced a “possible shutdown” when its lease expired, and inferred the ballet company had been somewhat unceremoniously tossed out of the UCT location.

Gerard Samuel, Director of the UCT School of Dance and a board member of City Ballet, was eager to correct the record. Since taking the Directorship 8 years ago, Samuel has focused on expanding the scope of the School of Dance from the original home of classical ballet, to currently including a wide variety of dance forms.

The latest 5-year lease agreement with City Ballet was due to expire as of 31 December, 2016 and the last 18 months had seen the School of Dance actively involved in City Ballet’s search for a new home.

Samuel explains, “Having had such a long and fruitful relationship, we asked how we could assist City Ballet in finding new premises.” Working closely with the City, Samuel lobbied on behalf of City Ballet for space. “The reason behind the exit of the ballet company was because we are joining the Drama Department and when this all comes together our first graduate programs are going to continue to expand and we need the physical space. We have been managing to share the space with the ballet for a very long time, however, we have particular needs, and we need to serve those University needs first.” This was confirmed by CEO of City Ballet, Elizabeth Triegaardt, in a public statement.

The process was complicated by the national student protests. In the week that made headlines, students were moving across the campus forcing people to come out of their offices to join the protest. “That tension,” Samuel explains, “happened equally at the School of Dance. We weren’t immune. They entered our premises, took dancers and teachers out of the space to join up with the movement in a forceful and intimidating way.”

Having anticipated the protests would impact the school, Samuel had put in place guidelines for an evacuation plan – a fire drill, or in this case, a protest drill - as early as March, 2016. This plan had been discussed with the City Ballet’s executive and Artistic Director, ensuring the immediate safety of the dancers while remaining ultimately responsible for all those using the facilities. As the protests rolled on throughout the day, Samuel remained in constant communication with faculty as well as with City Ballet, taking into consideration the visibility of the dancers in the glass-walled studios.

Subsequent media reports and social media commentary appear to conflate the lease agreement with the discussion about ‘decolonialisation’.

“The discussion inside of this is the ‘non-discussion’ about ballet being a colonial art form, and whether ‘black student protesters’ are kicking out ‘white ballet dancers’. That,” Samuel says, “is the much more uncomfortable conversation nobody wants to have.” The tendency to address deep issues in simple polarities allows us to feel violated, rather than opening up a discussion that must take place.

As South Africa’s first professional ballet dancer from the Indian community during the restrictive days of apartheid, Samuel’s loyalty to the art form runs deep. “I am first and foremost a classically trained ballet dancer, but my advocacy for ballet goes beyond my own background. As head of the School of Dance and as a dance professor, my role is to study the art form of dance, and that includes the political, social and cultural history, whether its ballet, pantsula, gumboot, hip-hop, etc. To try and frame the picture as ‘colonial white ballet in our black country’ is absurd. We are not polar opposites. We can’t be naïve to think that the perception of ballet in South Africa in 2016 is somehow removed from the rest of the world - that we in Africa are not connected to ballet that is happening in London, Brussels, Singapore, Mexico, or Swaziland. Instead, we’re fixated around the earlier notion of the British style of ballet that came to our country in the 1920’s and 30’s.”

While activists and organizations around the world try to understand where the call for ‘decolonialisation’ comes from, reporting in South Africa has largely focused on the sensational.

“This is not about a few students burning tyres in the streets because they don’t like their white British professor,” Samuel remarks. “The layers of the debate go beyond free tertiary education, and extends to housing, gender issues, poverty, and the promise of democracy. The attention on ballet seems to be an attack on the very outward manifestation of what ballet is. Is that a result of the ‘us versus them’ view of the art form? If there’s a kind of ‘bitchiness’ about the management and its perceived ‘colonial’ leanings, then people must also have the courage to attack specifically what they don’t like and lobby for a change.”

Samuel uses the analogy, “When you’re trying to pull out a carrot, you can’t be snatching at the top of the green bits. You have to get the root. So, if you’re trying to change it, you can’t start in the 1930’s, you have to go all the way back to the 1700’s and then figure out how you’re going to change it. And then you have to ask WHY are you changing it? What are you replacing it with?”

He asks, “Who is dancing it, and who is watching it?”

I asked Samuel how South African ballet can start to tell the stories of our country? Where are the narratives of the Xhosa women? Or the Zulu nation?

“That could be one of the issues,” Samuel explains. “It presents very specific challenges. Every language has its own nuance and idiomatic expressions in a way that it can express itself. If we want to tell the story of the Tsonga woman – how do we do that in a way that honors both the spirit of that story, and tell it in the vocabulary of ballet. What is an ‘African story’?”

Samuel argues for a greater education of the audience: how to deconstruct the idea that ballet is for white people, or for the wealthy, and advocates for opening the performance to those who currently perceive it to be for a specific group so that they find their part in it, and they can experience it and enjoy it.

“What the public misses is that they imagine classical ballet to be a static form, and that’s part of the problem – the ballet that began with the court of Louis IV is not what we’re doing now. If we can only recognize that ballet is living and breathing and constantly changing, and it doesn’t have to ‘Africanize’ itself – it just needs to respond to its world. Our task is to ask how people who support ballet can be a little ‘looser around the collar’ in the way they drink in this ‘new’ ballet. When we say it must fuse and not wallow in nostalgia, and it must be contemporary and up-to-date, then we start to acknowledge that everybody’s story needs to be able to be told. It’s not about returning to an indigenization of Africa.”

Cape Town City Ballet has positioned itself in the niche of Eurocentric, classical ballet, and is moving increasingly towards children’s ballet stories, with Peter Pan, Beatrix Potter, and Goldilocks in their repertoire.

“Notice how ‘Peter Pan’, or ‘Humpty Dumpty’ come from a specific place. We are, once again, telling British stories. So, we’re back to our colonial heritage – articulated by choreographers in SA in 2016. We’re choosing to write colonial stories – are we doing so because it makes marketing sense, or whether it makes artistic sense? Or a combination?”

Samuel continues, “How do we make things that resonate with us that are about our common humanity? When we do create multi-cultural productions, they come across as curiosities, or they’re done in a clumsy way where it becomes a kind of parody of an entire cultural space. Seeing SA in fragments, rather than the whole picture, reflects the heritage of our colonial and apartheid past. We have to find ways to bring together, for example, British ballet with Indian culture, acknowledging that both are equally relevant to the SA experience.

“For me, the reality is that when we position ourselves as uniquely South African, with 11 cultural voices, we perpetuate a mythology around who we are. Yes, we are those 11 voices, but we are also none of those things. And the ‘none of the things’ space is more interesting to me because I should be able to access anything from anywhere. I see myself first and foremost as an artist, and a part of the performing arts world.”

Ballet class at Dance For All, Cape Town
Ballet class at Dance For All, Cape Town

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