Ga Yeon Jung (front) with Dae-Han Na in the 'Don Quixote' pas de deux.  Photo © Pat Bromilow-Downing

Ga Yeon Jung (front) with Dae-Han Na in the ‘Don Quixote’ pas de deux.
Photo © Pat Bromilow-Downing

Artscape Theatre, Cape Town, South Africa; February 18-22, 2014

Maggie Foyer

Cape Town has to be one of the most beautifully sited cities in the world. The splendour of Table Mountain and the bay make it the Angelina Jolie of the geographical world. However, one of the best views is from the ferry to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for most of his 27 years imprisonment. This draws focus to the obverse side of the beauty, the inhuman policy of apartheid that darkens the country’s past.

On the positive side, South Africa has a rich dance legacy which is also, unsurprisingly, divided by historical circumstances and ranges from vibrant traditional dance to high quality classical dance. South Africa currently has two ballet companies and The Royal Ballet has always had a notable array of South African dancers in their ranks. However it was the mercurial dancer, Johaar Mosaval from Cape Town who broke the all-white taboo to become Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet’s first ‘gentleman of colour’ in 1952. Most recently Dane Hurst, another mixed race dancer from the Cape, has been honoured as Best Male Dance in the 2013 National Dance Awards in the face of fierce competition from the likes of Edward Watson and Sergei Polunin. The talent is there.

However dance has fallen on hard times since its fully sponsored days of white privilege. Standards have been falling as funding dries up, so the SAIBC is a welcome force to punch it back into shape. The biannual competition is in its 4th presentation and in the words of the chair of the jury, South Korean, Hae-Shik Kim, it has now reached a truly international standard with entrants from across globe and importantly, a marked rise in local standards.

The success of the competition is primarily down to the bulldog tenacity of CEO, Dirk Badenhorst who raised both the money and the international interest to make it possible. This is no easy task in a country where urgent needs for better housing and education can make art funding seem an elitist luxury. The City of Cape Town gave no funding to the competition this year and has also cut its funding to the Cape Town Ballet, SA’s oldest company. Badenhorst noted this fact with sadness in his closing speech on the stage surrounded by jury, competitors and also the executive deputy mayor, Alderman Ian Neilson. It was a brave move that brought results as later that evening the powers that be expressed their concern over the host city’s lack of support with promises to redress the situation. Heaven knows, the dance world could do with more fighters like this.

Mthuthuzeli November. Photo © Pat Bromilow-Downing (3)

Mthuthuzeli November.
Photo © Pat Bromilow-Downing

While the top prizes went, unsurprisingly, to Chinese, Cuban and South Korean dancers, South African winners included two black dancers, Khanya Mandongana, 17, and Mthuthuzeli November, 20. They were both awarded scholarships to the Alvin Ailey School in New York by Melanie Person, jury member and co-director of the school. November, a student at Cape Academy of Performing Arts, won Gold in the senior contemporary section with his powerful solo “Convivencia”, proving his technical and performance skills. Mandongana from the Cape Junior Ballet, reached the finals but unfortunately injured himself in an exuberant performance dancing James from “La Sylphide”. He joined the winners on stage hobbling on crutches but still with a broad smile.

In the pre-competitive Scholars’ Section Leroy Mokgatle, 14, a tiny dancer with huge talent won gold for his contemporary solo, well choreographed and given a riveting performance, and silver for his classical. A pupil of the Art of Motion School in Johannesburg, he displayed a solid technique particularly on his jumps but it was the joy and love of performing that flowed from his every move that had the audience purring. His Basilio from “Don Quixote” was executed with style way beyond his years. The gold medallist in the Scholars was Xu Jing Kun. At only 13 he was one of youngest but danced a remarkably confident James showing a fine jump and a pair of very neat feet.

Leroy Mokgatle. Photo © Pat Bromilow-Downing

Leroy Mokgatle.
Photo © Pat Bromilow-Downing

Gold in the Senior Classical female went to Ga Yeon Jung, 21, from South Korea, the only medal in this category and well deserved.  Her Kitri was sheer delight; her technique textbook perfect with feet that twinkled like stardust while communicating her pleasure throughout. Gold in the junior girls’ category went to Zhang Yuanyuan, from China for a breathtaking “Grand Pas Classique”. She sailed through this seriously difficult pas de deux with total assurance the glimpse of a smile tickling the corners of her mouth, her gorgeous long legs hitting each classical pose in a gold standard performance. And she proved her versatility by winning the contemporary section. Lou Spichtig’s Giselle, a sensitive and finely phrased performance, won silver and Gabrielle Chock, 16, from the United States won bronze with her effortless jump and engaging warmth.

Both senior male awards went to Cubans: Ramiro Samon won gold with his Satanella with clean batterie and Cuban warmth in his smile. Javier Monier as Acteon used every trick in the book packaged and delivered with flair to win silver. “Diane and Acteon” was the popular choice this year and I particularly liked Byul Yun’s Acteon which won him the junior silver medal for the grace he brought to his virtuosity. As Basilio he finished on a prize winning pirouette to audience cheers. Yet another Acteon, bronze winner, Francois Llorente Nuñez, made his entrance with a breathtaking 360 revoltard. He started on top and maintained full velocity to the end. Yu Hang who won the junior gold was another dancer with inherent grace and elegance. Her legs of steel enhanced her La Esmeralda, a solo which all too often errs on the side of vulgarity.

The contemporary section gave local dancers greater opportunities. The solos produced a range of interesting choreography although some modernisation of the chiffon clad ‘Isadora Duncan’ genre, and greater dance quality in the overtly gymnastic solos would be welcome. However this section offered a wider range of movement compared to many international competitions where the ‘contemporary’ is simply a newly written ballet solo.

Xu Jing Kun as James from 'La Sylphide'. Photo © Pat Bromilow-Downing

Xu Jing Kun as James from ‘La Sylphide’.
Photo © Pat Bromilow-Downing

Francois Llorente Nunez as Acteon. Photo © Pat Bromilow-Downing

Francois Llorente Nunez as Acteon.
Photo © Pat Bromilow-Downing

Two young South African dancers, Caitlin Tanner and Chanté Daniels, got to the finals dancing, respectively, solos from “La Fille mal gardée” and the slow Shade variation from “La Bayadère”. Musical, well trained and warming to the audience, they proved the rising local standards. And at only 14 they still have time on their side.

It was a positive sign that a number of medals were not awarded where the standard was not sufficiently high. But a small gripe – while most competitions allow dancers to do either two solos or one pas de deux, in these finals duets were judged against single variations giving the former the advantage of so much more stage time. Competitions have their limitations but in the current critical situation the SAIBC is a lifeline for South African dance and long may it survive.

On the final two evenings, three local companies entertained the audience while the judges deliberated. Friday’s performances were the most enjoyable. The Eoan Theatre Group is a newly formed dance company that continues the legacy of the illustrious Eoan Group first formed in the ‘coloured’ area of District Six in 1933. The group performed ballets, operas and choral works to a high standard and soldiered on through the Apartheid era. However when District Six was reclassified as a white area, the group were forced to move to the outlying suburb of Athlone and much of its cultural heart was lost. Mishkaah Medell’s “(Re)Verse” was a moving, unsentimental piece for seven women loosely linked to poetry and the lost art of letter writing. Good choreographic structure provided a platform for fluid coordinated movement spiced with profound moments.

Belinda Nusser, a South African now based in Sweden, wrote “Fade out. Five”, for the Cape Dance Company, a small project based group directed by Debbie Turner. It offered a strong contrast dressed in township grunge with autobiographical narrative in the dancers’ voiceovers. Nusser’s choreography, high energy contemporary dance with an African flavour, speaks for the young urban blacks coming from a tough past and forging a future in vibrant physicality. Londiwe Khoza’s had an impressive solo and Mthuthuzeli November added punch to the ensemble.

The newly renamed, Joburg Ballet closed the evening with a daring display of Asaf Messerer’s “Spring Waters Pas de Deux” danced by established principal, Burnise Silvius, and Brazilian Jonathan Rodrigues. She had the courage, he had the skill and the Soviet style lifts came off triumphantly.