Cape Town gets a taste of the feast of ballet that awaits

Opening her first season as chief executive the Cape Town City Ballet, Debbie Turner gives us a taste of what is to come. We get flavours of a very wide repertoire and hints of what her appointment will mean for theatre lovers in Cape Town.

The triple bill, showing at Artscape Opera House from June 22 to July 7, is titled Amaranth, which Google informs is an imaginary, unfading flower. The title seems both totally apt and pretty ambitious. Turner knows what is required of her and what she is up against. Importantly, the founder and creative director of Cape Dance Company knows what it takes to achieve that near-holy trinity of artistic excellence, public acclaim and commercial success.

We know, however, that she will have to fight on many fronts to open doors within the dance community as well as between the dance community, and funders and the ticket-buying public. The presence of Cape Town city mayor, Dan Plato, at the opening night of the 2019 Autumn/Winter season was a clear sign that she has already won over at least some of the people who hold the keys.

The first ‘course’ of Amaranth, George Balanchine’s Serenade, is the perfect appetizer. It is light, but not frothy, and certainly not insubstantial. Set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48. with four movements; Sonatina, Waltz, Russian Dance and Elegy, it fires up all of our taste buds.

The whipped blue deliciousness of George Balanchine’s Serenade
Photograph: Michael Groenewald
Serenade, Choreography by George Balanchine ©️The George Balanchine Trust

A large cast dressed entirely in blue dance against a blue background. It is complex and layered, but it is not confronting, somehow it is not even challenging for the audience. Bliss! We are soothed and pleased, held and caressed. The music, the dance, the colour washes gently over us. I had read beforehand that Balanchine himself said of Serenade that there is no hidden story, that it is just people dancing beautifully in the moonlight.  

What an incredible treat to see one of the select performances accompanied by the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra.

Getting the rights to Serenade is something of a coup for Turner. It was the first original ballet that Balanchine, the Russian-born Georgian-American who was one of the most influential 20th century choreographers, created in America. It is one of the signature works of the New York City Ballet, which Balanchine co-founded in 1948.

After the whipped blue deliciousness, we are back in more classic territory for the second course. Veronica Paeper’s staging of South African-born Frank Staff’s Transfigured Night demands a little more from the audience. Many will say it gives more too. It feels like we have had our time off and must now work a little (I use ‘work’ in the loosest sense of the word).

Set to a score by Arnold Schoenberg, the ballet is based on a familiar and widely accessible story (sibling rivalry/power struggle within a family) and is also a dramatic love story. This middle course is moving and satisfying. The young lovers provide a joyous counterpoint to the jealousy and rage of the family drama. (Leane Theunissen as the older sister was the standout performer of the night for me.)

Thanks to poignant solos and intimate duets it is easy to leave your seat for the (second of two) intermissions after the Transfigured Night feeling a little emotional, as if stung by a family drama of one’s own.

That is soon forgotten, though, when the cast of 60 dancers claims the stage and the audience for Enemy At The Gates. Christopher Huggins’ sensational piece delivers again and again.

Spectacularly athletic: Enemy At The Gates Photograph: Michael Groenewald

The Prussian-style costumes are perfect for the Matrix-like, military-on-parade mood in this breathtaking fusion of contemporary ballet and modern movement. The spectacularly athletic ballet leaves one totally satisfied, yet we wouldn’t say no to a second helping, or even a third. A hot and spicy final course.

Amarinth, which runs from June 22 to July 7 at Artcape Opera House, is a tantalising tasting menu of what is to come. It is also a sweeping statement on the breadth and depth we can expect from the new season and the new CEO at CTCB. It leaves one satisfied yet hungry for more.

The second show of the season is Sleeping Beauty, for which CTCB will welcome leading international guest artists Vadim Muntagirov and Sarah Lamb (The Royal Ballet), Precious Adams (English National Ballet), Andile Ndlovu (Washington Ballet) and Siphe November (National Ballet of Canada). Sleeping Beauty runs August 17 to 31 at Artscape Opera House.

Siobhan Cassidy

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