I read something on Facebook the same day that Trump happened to me. Drump. Hump. Lump. Slump. Lots of other things happened to me that day. Trump was just one of them, his face pouring into my eyes as I scroll. Scroll. Hole. Mole. Suddenly I saw this on my newsfeed, an article shared by Mamela Nyamza.
It was a poorly-written piece of journalism by a certain Tanya Farber of Times Live, nauseatingly entitled: Cape Town ballet ‘too colonial’. The article earnestly, but rather simply, discusses the departure of Cape Town City Ballet (CTCB) from the premises of the University of Cape Town’s School of Dance. It’s no Trump, but it’s big news for me… In fact, this is big news for many people in the dance community in Cape Town.
Naturally I feel sympathy for the dancers looking for rehearsal space. Life is tough, no funding for the arts, etc. etc. – it’s hard, trust me, I know… But then almost every dancer in this country operating outside of a ballet company has been desperately seeking rehearsal space since forever. Welcome to the club.
Certainly, it must be difficult to be uprooted so quickly, but this isn’t the crime of the century. Perhaps CTCB aren’t the quite noble victims this article paints them out to be… Perhaps a bigger insult remains the fact that CTCB has occupied UCT School of Dance for so long and contributed so little to the very dance community surrounding them.
Disclaimer: Ballet was my first love, so naturally my feelings around it are quite intense. It introduced me to a world of dance, movement, choreography, artistic expression as well as physical discipline and an incredible understanding of how my body moves and works. However, it also came with a passive and powerful culture of hierarchy and body monitoring (not to mention that whole monarchy thing lurking in ballet’s origins!) Yet my entire primary and high school years revolved around perfecting this craft and when I finished high school, it was big fucking deal for me to study dance in Cape Town, the only university to offer a degree in Dance in South Africa.
As first year students, we were never really given the history behind the prestigious institution of the UCT School of Dance. But that’s no surprise. It’s often simpler to talk about the future. You can talk a bit about the past (depending on context and how far back you’re going) and then don’t even start thinking about the present.
Essentially the campus started out as a school for the Cape Town City Ballet Company in 1934, founded by Dulcie Howes. It worked as an effective feeder programme for young ballet students (mostly white, the arts were undeniably monitored during British colonial rule and then strictly controlled once 1948 shit hit the fan). Individuals who showed interest or promise in ballet could further their training and possibly join the company; most students became a ballet teachers. There’s no denying this institution did great things for ballet; it enabled a dancer’s technical progress all the way up until her early retirement around 30 (the lifespan of a ballerina is short). Following that the retired professional ballerina could be pursue different avenues such as: teach ballet or become a housewife (maybe, rarely – she could choreograph, but generally arts-making and decision-taking was the man’s job).
Throughout various shifting systems of education in history and dance, other movement techniques have been taught and valued in different ways, to various degrees. As South Africa slowly started adjusting their politics in the mid 1990s, naturally the education system had to adjust too, catching up with the world that had swiftly transformed during that silent shutdown between 1948 and 1990. Many South Africans, during those intensely censored years, missed out on a couple of revolutions in the performing art and dance worlds. And in any case, there was an internal revolution to attend to.
In 1997, the UCT School of Ballet changed to the UCT School of Dance, perhaps with the intention of making it more accessible to 90% of the South Africans who had backgrounds and trainings in a different kind of dance technique, one that didn’t look like ballet. This ‘progressive’ institution magnanimously adjusted the syllabus to include other dance training and techniques but naturally held true to classical technique of ballet (ancient and embodied imperialist thought structures are tricky to shake off.)
Observe the problems in this extract from the history of the School of Dance at their website:
“Nothing can match the demands and artistry of the pure classical technique and this discipline should never be neglected, but dance in South Africa must meld with the country’s volatile circumstances and reflect the rhythms and patterns of Africa in the 21st century…”
Remember that passive but powerful culture of hierarchy I mentioned earlier? Ja. And so roughly 20 years ago a new South Africa, a new syllabus, a new name for an institution but ultimately, in regard to UCT School of Dance – pretty much the same politics of hierarchy and culture, but slightly adjusted and more ‘diverse’.
While the pureness of ballet continues to be defended, I can’t help but feel that by refusing to recognize new techniques from other modes of movement, ballet continues to rust and dismantle itself as irrelevant and unsustainable. Perhaps if ballet in South Africa got a little bit dirty and a little bit more engaged, perhaps if the culture of ballet began to embrace and explore other modes of moving and seeing and being, perhaps then they wouldn’t be forced to ‘meld’ with this country, but rather – simply, be in this country.
When I look back on the potential for a fully-funded dance company to interact and collaborate with an entire school of dance students, I become sad at the thought of how CTCB spent their time at the School of Dance. Maybe it has changed since I graduated in 2012, but during my five years there, the School of Dance and CTCB were like teens in a no-words-glares-only feud.
Perhaps, if one worked incredibly hard, one could make it into CTCB as a ballerina, not common but possible. Students who had a background in contemporary dance, bboy, Latin American, ballroom dance, hip hop, tap, flamenco or who were just fucking good movers and managed to pass the audition, could get into UCT School of Dance – but if they didn’t do ballet classes or weren’t sufficiently trained in ballet, they were completely overlooked as potential participants in the CTCB’s activities.
The students also lost out on the best rehearsal facility on the property – the main studio that CTCB rented, which doubled up as an intimate theatre that the third and fourth year choreography students had access to only at the end of the year. Aside from physically occupying so much pronounced space, CTCB simply did not engage with the students of the School of Dance. Why should they have? Non-ballet trained dancers were (and are) of no use or interest to CTCB.
And so despite the fact that ballet classes were available to a minuscule proportion of the country’s population, it was a ballet company that occupied almost half of the physical premises of Cape Town’s major university during a so-called democracy.
Possibly the most upsetting thought in this whole story is that this institution did not use their creative power and artistic intelligence to undo this cultural and political injustice. It’s not about the physical technique of ballet being ‘too colonial’ (no one can deny ballerinas are ultra-athletes who continue to move their bodies in surprising and difficult ways) but it’s the fucking culture of ballet that is too colonial (Honestly – you don’t have to be a genius to figure that out).
Where there are bodies, there are politics, economics and social orders. Ballet developed in a time where there were kings and queens and colonies and a very divine social orders of class. The politics of classical ballet, in the way it exists in our current context, shows a magnificent unwillingness to recognize, transform and re-define a physical, political and philosophical technique of movement. Mark Franko says it cleverly:
“Politics are not located directly ‘in’ dance, but in the way dance manages to occupy (cultural) space.”
All I can do to conclude is hope that the UCT School of Dance will begin to adequately foster the voices of their students by listening to what they have to say and then giving them the stage (and rehearsal space to say it). As for CTCB, perhaps they can start doing what other many other dancers and choreographers all the round the world have done when they have no rehearsal space with mirrors and sprung floors – put on some sneakers and dance in the streets… Flash mobs are trending right now, anyway.