By Nomali Cele
African ballet dancers exist
You wouldn’t be incorrect to associate ballet with tiny blonde women with tight buns. However, these three South African ballet bright stars have made great strides in the industry. None of them conforms to the standards set; they shift and mould the artform. Through their presence, they not only inspire black youth to get into the arts but they also change the landscape making room for African interpretation on the ballet stage.
Still from 21 Icons film
Arguably one of the most well-known classical dance talents that South Africa has produced in the last decade, Phetla is an important and groundbreaking dancer on our stages. Aside from being a black girl without primary access to the art form of ballet because her family was of modest means, Phetla’s success stands out for another reason: she is tall. Dance, but especially ballet, likes them tiny. Phetla stands six feet tall. She is as graceful as she is athletic.
Spotted when she was eight years old, Phetla began training with Martin Schönberg a year later. She eventually went on to join his dance company, Ballet Theatre Afrikan, and was there from 1998 to 2002.Schönberg is known as a ballet instructor with a very exacting work ethic and Phetla grew and blossomed under his tuition. In her career Phetla has danced the leading roles in well-loved classical ballets such as Giselle, The Dying Swan and Les Sylphides, but she has also choreographed her own contemporary works. She is qualified in the ballet discipline of Cecchetti and has won multiple awards for her work.
In 2014, she was also named one of South Africa’s 21 Icons and was photographed by Adrian Steirn for the portfolio, dancing The Dying Swan.
Photograph by Michael Hammond
A polished dancer who seems to defy the rules of gravity when he moves, ThorisoMagongwa trained with Martin Schönberg’s Ballet Theatre Afrikan from when he was 12 years old and went on to become a principal dancer and then a choreographer at the company.
While Ballet Theatre Afrikan closed its doors in 2009, Magongwa’s career has taken strides all over the world. He has toured extensively and represented South Africa in ballet competitions such as the Helsinki International Ballet Competition, where he was acknowledged in 2005 as one of the world’s 15 finest dancers. Magongwa’s first major choreography work was “Soulmates” which was staged at Dance Umbrella in 2003. He has collaborated with many dance companies in South Africa and abroad, and currently works as a dancer for the National Theatre of London.
Dada Masilo is a classically trained African ballet dancer and choreographer who uses her knowledge and mastery of the fundamentals of ballet to reimagine the dance form. Her work has courted controversy in that she doesn’t always present classic ballets as audiences are used to seeing them, such as A Swan Lake with a man in the female lead and all dancers in tutus and a Romeo and Juliet featuring a multi-racial Capulet family.
Beyond her boundary-pushing decisions that turn classic pieces on their head, what draws the audience to Masilo is her genre-bending style. She is also a trained contemporary dancer, which, combined with her early dance roots in a young dance crew in Soweto, undertones her work in ballet. Masilo’s creative decisions as choreographer challenge the gender binary, bring sexuality to the fore and leave audiences talking. Her Swan Lake has travelled all over Europe and earlier in the year debuted in the US.
Masilo won the 2008 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for dance.