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Op-eds

Whose shoulders are you dancing on? And why?

  • Sifrin Geoff HOME
What would compel you to attend the funeral of someone you had never met? In the past ten days, two great men of the arts have passed on: Francois Theron, the Artistic Director of the National Children’s Theatre, and veteran photographer David Goldblatt. This country is the poorer for losing them and the clarity they brought in confusing times.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Jun 28, 2018

Theron, who captivated children with classics such as The Pied Piper, The Wizard of Oz, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as well as local shows performed by professional actors, died last week. He was a maestro of children’s theatre in Johannesburg. Exposing young children to high-quality theatre to ignite a lifelong flame in them was his goal.

Located in a heritage building in the old neighbourhood of Parktown, the theatre was founded in 1989 as a non-profit by Joyce Levinsohn. The current director is Moira Katz. Watching excited tots buzzing on the theatre’s floor in front of the stage, and their parents and schoolteachers revelling in the spectacle from behind, was Theron’s delight.

Theron was born in 1965, and grew up during apartheid. By the time he came of age as a director, however, apartheid had been dismantled, and in the past eight years of his career at the National Children’s Theatre, he could concentrate on the children and performers, black and white.

But, in the past, apartheid affected everything. Great theatre confronting apartheid goes way back, much of it linked to the late Barney Simon, the co-founder in 1976 of Johannesburg’s gutsy Market Theatre, home to the country’s first non-racial theatre movement. One had to be brave to fight the regime. Contravening racial laws and working under threat of arrest, Simon staged provocative plays with multiracial casts to multiracial audiences, challenging apartheid bullies.

Ballerinas also work on stage, and during apartheid, South Africa’s legendary prima ballerina, the late Phyllis Spira, was accepted at London’s Royal Ballet School in 1959. She was the only South African to be awarded the Prima Ballerina Absoluta in 1964, classical European dance’s highest accolade. It was awarded in recognition of her work as a powerful influence on cultural trends in dance. She was never directly affected by apartheid or the growing cultural boycotts of South Africa, nor was her work overtly political in any way. However, she is still respected as one of the icons of South African art.

While Spira captivated audiences with movement, another South African who made words dance like a ballerina during apartheid was Lionel Abrahams, described as the “yeast in the dough” of South African literature. A novelist, poet, editor, critic, essayist, and publisher, he was born with cerebral palsy, making him walk with undulating movements.

He was eventually confined to a wheelchair – the ballerina’s opposite. But language was his joy, and critics said he “could make it dance as he himself, severely disabled from birth, could not”. Until his death, he enriched writers and artists as teacher, editor and critic, delivering advice with a cheeky humour.

At some point, even for artists, the dancing stops. What is left is their life’s work. Tuesday witnessed the funeral of Goldblatt, a great man who danced with his camera lens with great wisdom, and who will be sorely missed. He documented South African scenes in thousands of pictures over his lifetime, during and after apartheid, with the finest artist’s touch.

Theron and Goldblatt were humble men who made magic. What is the value of standing at the graves of such giants, whether you knew them or not? It’s all we can do to thank them for giving us their gift.

 

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