Last year I was privileged to see the Geneva Ballet performing Midsummer Night’s Dream at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Ismail Mahomed has a sure feel for good theatre and what his audiences will enjoy. Joburg Theatre CEO Xoliswa Nduneni-Ngema snapped them up for a season at the Joburg Theatre.
This year the Geneva Ballet also did a week long development workshop with South African and Swiss choreographers at the Soweto Theatre under the direction of Philippe Cohen from the Geneva Ballet. This culminated in performances under the title “High Five, Choreographic Encounter” (for the four South African choreographers and one Swiss choreographer).
I attended the performance at the Wits Theatre on Sunday 14 June 2015. Nathanael Marie is originally from France. He is the only choreographer with whose work I am not familiar. I enjoyed the feeling of martial arts “katas” in his work and was not surprised to learn, after consulting the programme, that he studied martial arts.
The South African choreographers were P J Sabbagha, Fana Tshabalala, Mamela Nyamza and Gregory Maqoma. I was interested to note that despite the input from the dancers of the Geneva Ballet that I had no trouble in determining who did what work. It was a pity because it meant that the South African choreographers were less challenged than they should have been. Gregory Maqoma had the meatiest of the South African dance pieces. Unfortunately every one of the choreographers took liberties with the allotted twelve minutes and the five pieces took nearly two hours. Some of the audience were “bussed in” and it appeared that they had no clue about theatre etiquette. Add that to untitled pieces, no costumes, overly loud music and no explanations made for a tiring and stressful sit. I do want to point out that this unruly audience was NOT the school whose pupils sat front left (stage right) of the auditorium, but rather the older crowd who sat higher up.
Romeo and Juliette at the Mandela Theatre was entirely another story. I attended the sold out matinee performance on Saturday 20 June 2015 and was entranced from start to finish.
The set, a curved ramp, was by Remi Nicolas and Jacqueline Bosson. Simple, effective and striking, it never dominated, but was always tantalisingly available, leaving me a little disappointed that it was not used more. Where it was used it was enhanced by the lighting of Remi Nicolas. Deceptively simple costumes – mostly plain black slip dresses for the corps de ballet girls and a white slip dress for Juliette with men in suits and bare chests by Phillippe Combeau and Joelle Bouvier never interfered with the latter’s choreography. Sometimes one has a dancer tugging at (usually) her costume as it shifts up during the lifts. There were no wardrobe malfunctions despite some tough treatment. This is important, because the impression one walks away with at the end is that absolutely no detail was too small to get 100% right. I was however puzzled at the costuming of Tybalt. He was bare chested and wearing a skirt. While he represented Death (I think) at the beginning of the work, it was a little puzzling later in the work. At one point Juliette was sheathed in white which was lifted off the stage by mechanical lifts. A long black sheath dealt the death again at the end.
The whole production is minimalist and timeless. Romeo is danced by Nahuel Vega and Juliette by Sara Shigenari. Tybalt was danced by Nathanael Marie and Mercutio by Valdimir Ippolitotov.
It begins with Death. Romeo and Juliette are dead. The action works backwards and I wasn’t always certain where we were in the story, not least because the choreographer doesn’t always follow the conventions of the classical ballet by Sergei Prokofiev in what music she choses for a scene, not that it really mattered. We get the romance of the story.
The pared down piece left me wanting more. I think that’s mostly a good thing. I hope they are back every year.