IN PICTURES | Dancers back en pointe after lockdown leaves them flat-footed
Some, however, have lost their jobs, and the needy Cape children with whom they worked have suffered
If Cape Town City Ballet has hung on by a satin ribbon this year, it’s because every member’s DNA is coded with a message that dancing is the only thing that makes sense.
“We started off with such an amazing programme for the year,” CEO Debbie Turner told Sunday Times Daily.
This included what promised to be a breathtaking production of Swan Lake, to be staged by international doyenne Maina Gielgud.
By the second week of March, Turner found herself at a shop with a basket full of sanitisers and a clear message to the dancers: “We need to be extra vigilant — this looks like it’s becoming a problem.”
Even so, neither she nor the dancers knew the bleakness of what lay ahead. Gielgud, who had travelled from Australia, took the dancers through a “bare-bones run” of the Swan Lake production on the Saturday before President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation.
Others had also flown in to assist, including a guest ballet master from London.
“All of a sudden, everything changed. We had to get them home. It turned from zero to a hurricane in a matter of three days,” said Turner.
She acted immediately after Ramaphosa’s speech, messaging all the dancers to take a 48-hour timeout so she could figure out what to do next.
Then she called her doctor, who said: “It will be irresponsible if you don’t call it quits right now.” And that is what she did.
The dancers took leave and the idea was to come back on April 20, but then, said Turner, “one announcement came after the next, and then the next, and then the next — it just went on and on”.
One of the hardest things, she said, “is absorbing that the performing arts are not perceived as essential services”.
Suddenly, from a life of dancing all day, being fitted with glorious costumes and doing what they love best in front of an auditorium full of admirers, the dancers were locked down in their homes.
“It never entered my head that it would go on this long,” said Turner, adding that “she learnt very quickly” that ballet over Zoom with dancers in their living rooms didn’t work.
From early June, “very cautiously, we came back twice a week in smaller pods and, incrementally, we increased it.” The company also experimented with digital collaborations.
But since then, a “devastating” retrenchment process has unfolded in the company, salary cuts have been implemented and the remaining members of the management team are “doing two or three additional jobs” each.
“Basically, Covid-19 felt like a cricket bat to the head when you’re in full play, which is exactly what we were,” said Turner.
Fast-forward to the present and light streams through the windows of the large studio in Mowbray, as dancers appear to defy gravity. The room is charged with relief, passion and, most of all, a communal spirit.
For principal dancer Mariette Opperman, who has been with the company for 10 years, 2020 will always be the year that changed everything.
“We were used to coming into the studio from Monday to Friday for eight hours a day. It is what we do. And then all of a sudden ... nothing.”
Like her colleagues, she felt the strange isolation of being at home with a body aching to move as only a ballerina’s can.
“We are so used to dancing together and being a big group. The energy in the room creates a company feeling. When we were at home, all of that was gone,” she said.
“We couldn’t stand close to each other or touch each other, and yet dance by its nature is so intimate. We hug each other and are very close, so it was awful to be apart.”
Now the remaining members of the company are trying to get back on their toes. “We can theoretically have outdoor performances with 500 audience members, but we will only go back into Artscape from next year,” said Opperman.
With most of the company’s income coming from ticket sales, there are still many challenges ahead.
“It is very hard on all of us — we have no audience and yet we thrive on their applause,” said Opperman.
In October, said Turner, the company will stage small productions in its studio — 10 to 15 dancers in front of about 50 audience members — with strict health protocols in place.
Another major loss from Covid-19’s impact on Cape Town City Ballet has been suffered by the Igugu-Lethu Arts and Leadership Project.
Olwethu Katase, who started the initiative five years ago to uplift youth in her community through ballet, contemporary and African dance, said the children suddenly found themselves cut off from the one thing that helps them navigate living in dangerous circumstances.
“I built up a professional relationship with Debbie Turner last year for our Saturday classes and, in February this year, the classes moved from the studio to a venue in Gugulethu. Then suddenly it had to stop due to the Covid-19 outbreak and lockdown,” said Katase.
This had a “very negative effect on the kids”, who missed dancing and were “miserable without the arts, as there was now no positive outlet for them”.
It was not just about dancing: Igugu-Lethu provides a safe space in which to “express anxiety and fears”, and in which they are supported in finding ways to solve personal problems.
Classes in Gugulethu have still not resumed, but the children have used the studio in Mowbray and recently visited the company now that lockdown is at level 1.
Said Katase: “It is so good for them to visit an environment where they can engage with professional dancers and ask questions, and see the level of training that you have to put into dance.”