Published in Financial Mail, 4 June 2015: DADA Masilo, Robyn Orlin, Boyzie Cekwana, Gregory Maqoma … the names of the “most famous” SA choreographers roll easily off the tongue of Philippe Cohen, artistic director of the Grand Théâtre de Genève Ballet Company (Geneva Ballet).
In a rare break from his own tradition, Cohen has invited some of them to choreograph work for the 19-member ballet company as well as 12 local professional dancers preceding the visitors’ tour of Roméo & Juliette to the Mandela Joburg Theatre, from June 17 to June 21.
It’s a coup for the chosen few. Maqoma, assisted by Luyanda Sidiya, PJ Sabaggha and Fana Tshabalala, all based in Johannesburg, and Mamela Nyamza, from Cape Town, will join Geneva Ballet’s Nathanaël Marie, from Cannes, France, to make new work for the dancers this week in groups to be determined by Cohen himself.
They have an open brief in terms of genre and music choice — Cohen’s only advice is to be true to their culture. “Whether they are in pointe shoes or barefoot, and they choose a classical, minimalist, post-classical or contemporary style, I don’t care,” says Cohen.
Dance fans can see the fruit of their labours in High Five — Choreographic Encounters, to be staged in Soweto on June 13 and Johannesburg on June 14.
“I don’t know if we can make it in one week … but you know if we don’t dream, we die. If I don’t dream, I die,” says Cohen.
Since his appointment in 2003, his artistic focus has been to commission new work, backed by the “entire force” of the Geneva Opera and the city of Geneva.
“For me, art merits this kind of support, especially young artists,” he says. “I just want to discover strong people who have something to say.”
Much of the work he has seen by SA choreographers makes strong sociopolitical comments, and Cohen respects that, but the specific nature of the content has so far prevented a collaboration with the Geneva Ballet.
“I met Boyzie [Cekwana] many years ago when he performed in a small theatre in Geneva. His work was very strong; interesting; heavy; emotional. I loved what I saw, but it was too personal to transfer onto the company. It was not the right time.”
Meanwhile, Cohen has kept an eye on the SA dancers and choreographers who have forged successful careers abroad, watching and waiting for the possibility of a collaboration, an extension of a repertoire built on consistently superior quality and calculated investment.
An opportunity presented itself when Geneva Ballet was invited to perform for the 40th anniversary of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2014. Sufficient sponsorship made it possible to schedule some performances in Cape Town, which duly sold out, and opened the discussion for a return tour to Johannesburg this year.
At that time Cohen broached the idea of a focused workshop for professional dancers. “This project is very important,” he says. “It’s original. It’s the first time that we are in a country where I feel this energy; the people are so enthusiastic.
“While my intention was not to commission a new piece, I thought there could be an opportunity to work with the dancers. It’s the first step.”
He says this exercise is more about the process than the result. Cohen is keen to see how his dancers react to the new style, and what the SA choreographers can bring to them — perhaps a sensitivity to tradition and culture, an understanding of moving in a different way, the experience of mixing with other dancers.
The project provides a good opportunity for Marie to develop his choreographic skills, as he faces the inevitable conclusion of his performance career, while Nyamza is an exciting addition to the group, given that men far outnumber female choreographers worldwide.
Geneva Ballet is effectively a touring company, performing just two programmes in Switzerland each season. Because they feature only new work, Cohen says it’s a big challenge to find enough choreographers every year who gel with the company.
In Europe, the SA artists are in demand, there’s no question; Masilo arguably flavour of the year for 2014 with her contemporary take on classics such as Swan Lake and Carmen. She’s currently on tour with her “swans” in France.
But Cohen does not allow himself to be caught up in the hype. He bides his time, taking up to five years to explore a novel connection, a different interest.
The Swiss company is famous for its standard of excellence and Cohen is fiercely protective of that reputation. “I have to consider my board, the funders. But once I’ve made up my mind, that’s it,” Cohen says.
Whether the piece is successful or not doesn’t matter as long as he feels that he has found the right person. What does matter, he adds, is the learning, the growth, that comes for the dancers when they are exposed to a new approach.
Geneva Ballet is staffed by dancers of different nationalities, and SA’s Angela Rebelo has been one of them since September 2013. “It is an absolute gift for a performer to be able to move away from their native country to expand their experience and then return with their international company to share and unite the two worlds,” she says. It also promotes deeper understanding among company members.
Rebelo explains that Cohen hires dancers for their individual attributes and diverse backgrounds. With technical prowess a given, he looks for something unique in their personalities and how they interpret the choreographers’ work through movement and characterisation.
“None of us naturally move in the same manner, but we have the same desire to be where we are,” says Rebelo.
Johannesburg theatre patrons can experience the Geneva Ballet ethos when they perform Joëlle Bouvier’s Roméo & Juliette, set to Prokofiev’s three orchestral suites, at the Joburg Theatre this month. It’s a contemporary, reimagined production of the classic Shakespearean tragedy, a story of “love stifled by hate … a family devastated by the violence of two enemy clans.”
“I’m happy to be part of this production, because it will be the celebration of its 100th performance,” says Rebelo.
The company comes straight from the May premiere of another work by Bouvier, which afforded them the opportunity to revisit her style and intention for Roméo & Juliette as well. For a performance described as “pure and elegant … quite frankly, aesthetically perfect”, this is one season not to be missed.
The High Five — Choreographic Encounters project has been made possible with the support of Pro Helvetia Johannesburg, the Swiss Arts Council, the Embassy of Switzerland in SA, the French Institute of SA and Total (SA). Tickets are R50. Book for the Soweto Theatre on June 13 at 2pm and 6pm. Contact 0861 670 670 or visit www.sowetotheatre.com. For Wits Theatre performances on June 14 at 2pm and 6pm, book here. Roméo & Juliette tickets range from R180 to R350. Shows run at Joburg Theatre from June 17 to June 21. Book here or 0861 670 670. For block bookings at discounted rates for groups of 10 or more, call 011 877-6853.