Money Troubles Weigh On South African Ballet

Sarah King and Dion Page in the South African Ballet Theatre's production of 'The Sleeping Beauty.'

Sarah King as Princess Florine and Dion Page as the Bluebird in the South African Ballet Theatre's production of The Sleeping Beauty. John Hogg/Courtesy South African Ballet Theatre hide caption

itoggle caption John Hogg/Courtesy South African Ballet Theatre

During an early morning rehearsal in Johannesburg's city center, the dancers of the South African Ballet Theatre are gearing up for a busy holiday season.

At 9 years old, SABT, as it is called, is the country's largest professional ballet company.

Despite being put through some rigorous paces by the ballet master on this morning, the dancers are happily preparing for the season of some 88 shows. But there is also an air of anxiety — unless the company finds sponsors for its budget, it will have to close in the next three months.

"For me, what's at stake is a future of classical ballet in this country," says Iain MacDonald, artistic director of the company.

Dancers from the South African Ballet Theatre's outreach program in Alexandra.

The South African Ballet Theatre's outreach programs have generated interest among girls, like these dancers from the township of Alexandra. Werner Prinsloo/Courtesy South African Ballet Theatre hide caption

itoggle caption Werner Prinsloo/Courtesy South African Ballet Theatre

And along with it, perhaps, the hopes and dreams of young people — like those at a community center some 30 minutes away from the city center in the black township of Soweto.

"The kids are hungry for anything," says ballet teacher Fiona Brown. "They love to learn. ... I don't want them to feel that it's an elite thing. I want them to understand that this is something that's for them."

Outreach

Even though few have proper outfits — they often practice in their school uniforms — the children are excited about getting introduced to classical ballet. The company has established programs that take ballet into this and four other black townships, and have generated a lot of interest among girls like 13-year-old Lesedi Kanupe.

"I think ballet's my type of sport," she says.

In a country where the predominant sport is soccer, 9-year-old Buwana Sinwaye says he gave it up for ballet.

"Because it really keeps you busy. You love what you're doing," he says.

It was out of this kind of love that the South African Ballet Theatre was born. The government-financed, apartheid-era company was closed down by the new black-led government over questionable financial practices.

MacDonald and five other dancers struggled to start a new company. MacDonald says the little group of dancers often performed for nothing.

But in time, the dancers garnered support and, in 2007, won an award naming them Nation Builder of the Year. MacDonald thinks the scarcity of funds now is the result of money being diverted to South Africa's preparations for hosting the 2010 World Cup.

But the economy may also be a factor. The country's rising unemployment rate was high before the global recession, and is now officially recorded at 23.5 percent, representing more than 4 million jobless.

Dancers from the South African Ballet Theatre's outreach program in Alexandra. i

Artistic director Iain MacDonald works with Mothusi Tlhoale and other dancers from the South African Ballet Theatre's outreach program in Alexandra. Werner Prinsloo/Courtesy South African Ballet Theatre hide caption

itoggle caption Werner Prinsloo/Courtesy South African Ballet Theatre
Dancers from the South African Ballet Theatre's outreach program in Alexandra.

Artistic director Iain MacDonald works with Mothusi Tlhoale and other dancers from the South African Ballet Theatre's outreach program in Alexandra.

Werner Prinsloo/Courtesy South African Ballet Theatre

'A Way Of Life'

"In South Africa, we are facing a lot of people without work, and I think these kids that are exposed to this art form are then given opportunities," says MacDonald. "It's job creation, actually, ultimately. It gives hope for the family to show that their children are going to have a future because they can rest assured that they'll have a job. Now, if we suddenly shut all of this, I think it's not only affecting the children, but it's affecting the families, and it's job loss.

"And I think we need to make it happen so that these kids have a future."

Shereen Mathebula is one of the 35 dancers in the SABT company. She got her start in one of the dance outreach companies that came to her poor township of Alexandra, and she says this outreach continues to inspire young children.

If the company closed down, she says, "it will damage them really badly, because they love what they're doing, like the ballet in the outreach. After doing the outreach, they want to go somewhere ... so it's important for the future generation."

To see it all disappear, MacDonald says, "I think it would be like cutting someone's arm off, quite frankly. You know, for some of these kids, it's a way of life. ... To be deprived of that, I think, is just — would be so, so sad for this country and for these poor young artists."

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