It may still have a small following, but one dance company is determined to bring ballet, with its roots in the Italian Renaissance, to urban South Africa.
Onstage pirouettes, jetes and turnouts are still very much a foreign concept for most Africans, but the South African Mzansi Ballet wants to change that.
At the company’s studios in Johannesburg’s gritty but increasingly bohemian downtown, dancers are put through their paces by a diminutive Cuban instructor, shouting instruction in French.
“People are beginning to see the value of ballet… slowly. The future is exciting,” said chief executive Dirk Badenhorst, who believes he sees the first green shoots of change.
The Mzansi is not South Africa’s first ballet company by a long shot, nor, perhaps, its most illustrious.
The Cape Town City Ballet has been running in some form since 1934 and for three decades was home to legendary prima ballerina assoluta Phyllis Spira.
The late, great Margot Fonteyn was once a guest artist there.
Apart from training 24 full-time dancers who stage classical performances like “Giselle”, “The Nutcracker” and “Sleeping Beauty”, the Mzansi Ballet focuses on unearthing untapped talent in underprivileged parts of the city.
“We are fertilising the ground for new talent to blossom,” said Badenhorst.
The word “Mzansi” means south in the Zulu language and is commonly used to refer to South Africa.
Youngsters in townships like Soweto, Alexandra and Sophiatown now have a shot at a performance art long seen as the preserve of the privileged.
“Hopefully these children will rise through the ranks and become our stars of tomorrow,” said Badenhorst.
But a lot needs to be done, and funding is a constant problem.
The Mzansi Ballet was born one year ago out of a merger between two cash-strapped operations, the South African Ballet Theatre and Mzansi Productions.
In June the company was thrown an eight million rand ($800,000 / 590,000 euro) lifeline by the city of Johannesburg.
“It’s encouraging that the government is now beginning to take notice of our work,” Badenhorst said.
“We don’t need to keep on surviving, we need to thrive.”
He believes that a nation’s level of development can be judged by its attitude to the arts.
He hopes that South Africa would learn from Russia, its partner in the BRICS grouping of five large fast-growing economies, about the importance of dance.
The company must also overcome notions that ballet is “un-African” or at least an unwanted cultural import.
“I believe that we need to begin to tell our own stories, our own African fairytales. As Africans we’ve got so much wonderful stories,” Badenhorst said.
In 2008, a forerunner of the Mzansi Ballet gave an African twist to “The Nutcracker” classic, replacing the winter theme with the sun, Kalahari sand dunes and baobab trees.
“The response was amazing,” enthused Badenhorst.
“We need to tell more of our African stories, and take them to the world.”
Badenhorst recalled an event where the company set up a stage in a football field in a Johannesburg township, drawing a large crowd.
“I understand that we have to make the most of the facilities already in place and not wait for magnificent theatres,” said Badenhorst.
“The talent is definitely there, but it needs support. We are doing our bit,” he said.