Local ballet company, Risa Ballet, will get the honour of sharing the stage with the renowned Joburg Ballet later this month at Maitisong Cultural Centre. Relatively unknown locally, Rita Ballet has been providing ballet lessons for the past 25 years thanks to founder and teacher, Rita Lee.
Born in England and trained as a teacher at the Arts Educational Trust (England), Lee tells Arts and Society that it has been a slow and steady journey that began with only a handful of foreign students back in the 80s.
“I started with expatriates and as word got out that there was a ballet school in Gaborone, a lot of locals began to show interest,” she says. She says local interest in the dance has been so great that only 12 expatriates make up her current class of 160. Rita says her school admits students from as early as five years old while her oldest student is eighteen years old.
She describes ballet as an art form. “It is like being a painter. Not only do you need to possess natural skills for it you also need some form of training to perfect your skills.” She says someone with good ballet training can excel in any form of dance. Like all forms of performing arts, ballet has also moved with the times and incorporated various forms of music.
“Nowadays ballet is not just about classical music,” Lee says. “Ballet companies are using all kinds of music from contemporary to Hip Hop, pop and all the other genres,” she says. “Anything you can move to and express yourself.” The school has hosted performances every November for the past few years except last year (2014). She attributes the relative lack of appreciation for ballet in Botswana to lack of exposure. “You cannot fall in love with something you have never been exposed to,” Lee says. She believes if people could give ballet a chance they would fall in love with the art. Although she has been training students for more than two decades, hardly any of them has made a living from ballet.
“It is hard to make a living out of any form of entertainment here in Botswana,” she says. The road to recognition has been long, hard and fraught with financial obstacles for Lee and the ballet industry. The government has especially not been very forthcoming in providing necessary support for ballet.
“I have tried to seek support from the government but they don’t seem very interested.” With mainstream forms of arts and entertainment not getting enough support, Lee knew better than to get her hopes up.
In contrast, the Joburg Ballet was given a major boost in 2012 following an R8 million sponsorship from the city of Johannesburg and consequently changed its name to celebrate the city’s generosity. Lee says here they (Risa Ballet) are doing ballet just as a form of recreation and not for money. “It’s an escape from the stress that comes with life,” she says. “It is also for the love of the art.” She says watching the Joburg Ballet in action will give her students some form of confidence. “I want them to see what they are working towards and have greater appreciation for why they do this. They will get to see the end results of their training.”
Joburg Ballet visits Gaborone on 22 and 23 March to present International Ballet Galas highlighting the excellence and versatility of its dancers as well as the company’s wide-ranging repertoire. “The performances in Gaborone reflect Joburg Ballet’s aim to forge closer ties with South Africa’s neighbouring countries and to expand the company’s footprint beyond our borders,” said a statement from the company. Joburg ballet CEO, Dirk Badenhorst said: “While Joburg Ballet performed to great acclaim in China recently and our dancers regularly represent the company as guest artists with ballet companies abroad, this will be our first engagement outside South Africa on our own continent.┬áFor this reason the visit to Gaborone is of particular importance to us and we look forward to it with keen anticipation.” Joburg Ballet’s dancers are not only South Africans but are also drawn from countries further afield among them Cuba, Brazil and Ireland.┬á
The gala programme includes highlights from such famous ballet classics as Swan Lake and Don Quixote as well as dances with an African flavour and ballets created by South African choreographers, such as Kitty Phetla’s Carmina Burana. “Joburg Ballet plans to engage with ballet teachers and students in Botswana and the company is delighted that students from Gaborone’s Risa Ballet will dance a short curtain raiser before the public performances at the Maitisong Cultural Centre at the afternoon and evening performances on Monday 23 March.”