“It’s not just a South African production. It’s a global production brought to you by South Africa.”
On any other week those words would be exciting, perhaps, but unremarkable, but with xenophobia grabbing local and global headlines it echoes in a different way. Speaking on the eve of the opening of Joburg Ballet’s Swan Lake, renowned ballet dancer Kitty Phetla is passionate about the global nature of this production and what it says about her country.
With American, Cuban and Chinese dancers joining the local company to produce this iconic ballet, Phetla says the global face of this production and how much that speaks to the state of South African art being more than just a local phenomenon is more important than ever. In a week when too many South Africans have shown themselves ready to strike down anyone they consider a foreigner, Phetla says it’s crucial to her that the ballet is making a different statement about what it means to be South African.
“We’ve got so much work to do. We’ve got so much painful work to do,” she reflects, but hammers home that above all else our choices along that path speak to the next generation. “What are we saying to our children?” she asks, before lamenting that South Africa has only just reached a point where it has started to escape global stereotypical perceptions of the continent being “some kind of jungle”. The face we’re showing the world now is not one she can get behind.
“We’re at a different place… I mean, the 21st year of our democracy, we could be anything.” For Phetla that begins with true investment in the arts, especially from the government – who she concedes has done much, but still has much more work ahead. For her own part, her work with the Joburg Ballet means heading into 40 schools through the year and doing whatever it takes to get ballet to children who may never have seen this classical form of dance not traditionally associated with Africa.
Crucially, the picture of South African art that Phetla paints is global by definition, part of a picture that embraces artistic expression from not just other countries but continents. It is one of the arenas she sees the potential to change the national dialogue on this issue. How much art of that nature will it take to teach the next generation to view foreigners and South Africa’s involvement with them in a different light? We cannot be sure, but clearly we’re not quite on point yet.
Kitty Phetla was speaking at the opening of ‘The Promise of Freedom’, the 21 Icons documentary in which she features which will air on SABC 3 on 26 April at 19:30 and again on 27 April at 13:00.
By Marie Straub