Ballet is a venerable institution; a tradition that straddles the worlds of art and athleticism.
For many enthusiasts, a biannual excursion to the ballet is an integral highlight of their artistic itinerary for the year, and I think it’s fair to say that the appeal of performances such as Swan Lake and The Nutcracker has proven inexhaustible.
But renditions of the classics are just one aspect of what the Joburg Ballet company has to offer, and a new artistic collaboration with advertising agency TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris is bringing a fresher, more innovative facet of this art form to the fore.
To some, ballet may seem alienating: elite, inaccessible and immune to progress. In an age characterised by speed and near-constant stimulation, moreover, the idea of sitting through a lengthy production, watching a familiar storyline unfold over hours, might seem unappealingly archaic. In the name of its survival, is the august practice of ballet capable of adapting to the tempo of technology?
The answer from Joburg Ballet is a resounding yes and this affirmation is finding expression in a series of minutes-long, news headline-themed dances, which are being uploaded as videos online.
Bite-Sized Ballet: Mayweather vs McGregor
Bite-Sized Ballet, the brainchild of TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris, sees dancers from the Joburg Ballet interpret current events, ranging from the international and the tongue-in-cheek, to the local and the socio-political.
Thus far, four episodes have covered themes as disparate as a Game of Thrones recap, the proliferation of violence against women in South Africa, the Money Fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor, and the sorry state of gay rights in Africa.
“When we started this, we decided that we didn’t want rules. We want to be able to make Bite-Sized Ballets at the speed of culture, with the stories that are trending,” explains Peter Khoury, Chief Creative Officer at TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris. “We grab hold of these stories, and we interpret them through dance.”
“Ballet has historically been perceived as a white, Eurocentric art form,” notes Joburg Ballet artistic director Iain MacDonald. “We have gone out of our way to change that, and to emphasise the ways in which ballet is for everybody.”
The Bite-Sized performances are an innovative, uplifting approach to challenging the ways in which we typically conceive of ballet. Short and striking, these brief pieces effectively frame ballet as a timeless, matchless mode of storytelling, in a manner that accords with our current reliance on digital media. Moreover, the online samples are drawing attention to Joburg Ballet’s under-documented engagement with contemporary alternatives to the classics.
The company recently ran Big City, Big Dreams, an urban-inspired fusion of traditional ballet and contemporary dance styles, in collaboration with Vuyani Dance Theatre and Moving Into Dance Mophatong. “The great classics are our top box office sellers, but as a company, we also want to be playing with topics that are more relevant to today,” says MacDonald.
Bite-Sized Ballet: No.1: Game of Thrones
Popular estrangement from this art form is not, then, attributable to ballet falling behind the times; it arises from the fact that people aren’t sufficiently engaged with the local ballet scene to notice its evolution, beyond their remote, seasonal interest in old favourites.
This is a pity, especially because, as MacDonald emphasises, ballet offers a unique opportunity to promote both personal and social development. The Joburg Ballet has youth initiatives in Alexandra, Soweto and Braamfontein, and MacDonald is a firm proponent of, as he puts it, “letting children move their bodies, giving them a taste of what ballet’s about, and encouraging them to regard ballet as a sport as well as an art form.”
Ultimately, the plan is to produce a full “season” of Bite-Sized Ballets, in the manner of a television series, and in keeping with the project’s contemporary orientation.
“For the Joburg Ballet, this is about encouraging more people to go and see their shows,” Khoury reflects. “They’re not just doing The Nutcracker, and they’re not just doing Swan Lake. We will always have the traditional shows, the shows that won’t alienate the purists; but the company is becoming more and more diverse in their show selection. I think the future for them lies as much with stuff like Big City, Big Dreams.”
The Bite-Sized ballets feature on YouTube and joburgballet.com.
Don’t miss Joburg Ballet’s last few performances in 2017, their celebrated Carmen at Joburg Theatre from 6 – 15 April 2018, at The Joburg Theatre.