Saturday, 30 April 2016

Ballet in Sub-Saharan Africa

Author: Benji Robertson
Source Wikipedia
Creative Commons Licence

In 13 Prominent Ballet Dancers and Choreographers Born in Southern Africa 3 May 2009 Ross Dix-Peek wrote:
"Most people would not dare to proffer southern Africa as an example of a prolific breeding ground of ballet dancers and choreographers, but, that she is. South Africa, and what was then Rhodesia, has for many decades now been a veritable nursery for ballet dancers, and her progeny have, after receiving expert local tutelage , often ventured abroad, performing for the Royal Ballet and other stellar ballet companies, some accruing universal acclaim. Listed below are thirteen southern African-born men and women who have distinguished themselves in the ballet fraternity, most notably abroad."
Dix-Peek listed some of the greatest names in dance: John Cranko, Monica Mason, Nadia Nerina and Merle Park. They were, of course, white dancers who made their careers in the United Kingdom and other advanced countries.

One of the most remarkable features of the art form has been its resilience to political change. It might easily have suffered from its association with the ancien regime in Russia and disappeared without trace but instead it was adopted by the Soviets and received considerable support from them. Later it survived the fall of the Soviet Union and continues to prosper in the current political and economic climate.

A similar transition seems to have occurred in Southern Africa. There was an audience for ballet in the apartheid period and it might have been feared that ballet would have been tainted by association with that system but that does not appear to have happened. South Africans of all races have trained in the art though many continue to make their careers in Europe and North America.

There are however signs that a market for dance is developing in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yesterday the BBC posted the video"Ballet: 'Every dancer should have this background'" 29 April 2016 about ballet in Nigeria to its website. The film featured Sarah Boulos, Chairperson of the Society for Performing Arts in Nigeria ("SPAN"), which describes itself as "a registered NGO offering unprecedented opportunities in dance, music, theatre and visual arts to Nigeria's talented citizens."  A Google search of ballet in Nigeria revealed this YouTube video of children having fun and correspondence between a number of young Nigerian women who sought ballet training and a US website (see Career Development Plan - Ballet in Nigeria on Ballet Dancers

Elsewhere I have written about Mike Wamaya's class in one of the toughest neighbourhoods of Nairobi (see What can be achieved by a good teacher 3 March 2013) which I followed up last year with Back to Africa 7 Jan 2015 and Revisiting Kenya with Obama 25 July 2015. One development that I should very much like to see would be a ballet school in Freetown (see A Ballet School for Freetown 20 May 2014) as it is the capital of the country where Michaela DePrince was born (see Michaela DePrince at TEDx Amsterdam 28 Nov 2014) and also a country with which I have many connections.

Though these developments are encouraging there is still a long way to go. Lagos has had a 5,000 seater National Arts Theatre for the last 40 years but I struggle to find evidence of any kind of performance there, much less a ballet one. With any luck that may change as Africa celebrates the achievements of dancers like DePrince and Mthuthuzeli November who are making a name for themselves abroad.

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