Kitty Phetla: On pointe and in the realm of the ancestors

Standard Bank’s 2019 Young Artist winner for dance, Kitty Phetla, doesn’t believe in the glory of kudos. It’s all about mastering the craft, she says.

“There are no steps in my choreography,” Kitty Phetla, 36, this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist (SBYA) award winner for dance, tells the Brazilian dancers she’s working with. In red tights and beads, they eddy around her like fauns as they polish and perfect each move in Wakanda, which she has choreographed.

Phetla leaves this week for Makhanda, where she will showcase a new work at the National Arts Festival, which is the SBYA award’s mandate. Wakanda is part of a suite of four works, which will be performed at the Joburg Theatre after the festival in July.

Ballet, as a medium, is often caught in cliché. The word conjures up girls in pink tutus standing on the tips of their toes. It’s much more complex. It has unabashed Western roots, but South Africa’s contemporary greats, such as Mamela Nyamza, Dada Masilo and Nelisiwe Xaba use it for its strict physical regime: it is considered the best dance workout there is.

How ballet changed Kitty

Phetla was a small child when ballet turned her life upside down. But the moment she began to evolve into dance was not her own. “It was when Martin Schӧnberg discovered me. I was nine. I think he is a genius. I always felt, oh my gosh, I’m so lucky to have Martin.”

Speaking from Cape Town, Schӧnberg, the founder of South Africa’s Ballet Theatre Afrikan (BTA), and a dance prodigy in his own right, who wowed state ballet companies and their audiences across Europe and the Far East in the 1980s, recalls when first he met an ebullient little Kitty.

“It was at Orange Grove Primary School. The children were wild and gentle; they didn’t have a sense of entitlement, and they were excited,” he remembers, explaining that his visit was not a grilling audition in the conventional sense. Schӧnberg knew the characteristics he was looking for, but the children were in a state of play.

“I was working at the time with children from Reiger Park and Katlehong, and teaching gymnastics,” he explains. Schӧnberg had just retired from the stage. “I was looking at proportion and musicality, athleticism, musical intelligence and eagerness and instinctive bravery.”

“Kitty had everything. There was fire in her belly. As a nine-year-old, she was absolutely tiny. But she had terrible feet. I had to get to her feet before puberty, because that’s when calcium starts to change the bones.”

20 June 2019: Kitty Phetla captured during rehearsals for her dance work ‘Wakanda’.

The child with fire in her belly

“But it was her innate musical intelligence that grabbed me and never let go,” he continues. “She could hear counterpoint nuances in music in a personal way that I could only recognise when she showed me. Her instincts have always been spot on,” he remembers, commenting on the choreographic seed he recognised and nurtured in Phetla.

Schӧnberg developed BTA, which he described as having something between a Swan-Lake ethos and an African-Footprint one, from 1990. The company flourished for 18 years and closed in 2008, but during its heyday, Phetla was its principal ballerina alongside Yolandi Olckers, who is now based in Britain.

During those years, the company, punching way above its weight, developed an independent repertoire, which was like bottled incendiary magic. It included works choreographed by Schӧnberg, as well as Andrea Schermoly, Vincent Mantsoe and Adele Blank, among others.

Dancers such as Andile Ndlovu (now with Washington Ballet), Thoriso Magongwa (with Národní divadlo, the Czech Republic’s state ballet), Camille Bracher (part of the Royal Ballet in London) and Phetla, flourished under Schӧnberg’s tutelage. After BTA closed, Phetla joined Mzansi Productions, which morphed into Joburg Ballet.

20 June 2019: In rehearsal, Joburg Ballet dancers who will bring ‘Wakanda’ to life at the Nelson Mandela Theatre from 5 to 14 July.

Ballerina versus ancestral being

Chatting to New Frame, Phetla seems relaxed, but as she works with the dancers, something of a tight spring in her sensibilities is revealed. It’s like watching an ancestral being playing with mortals, which makes it difficult to imagine her working with the constructs of traditional European ballet, a dance regime that boasts a very staid aesthetic.

In traditional ballet, dancers are always the same height and, invariably, white. Phetla doesn’t fit either category. Standing over 1.8m in her tights, she’s far taller than the average dancer, and she’s proudly black African. She can stretch traditions where others wouldn’t dare to.

One can’t enter to become the Standard Bank Young Artist. A panel of peers suggest, table and confer the award based on their opinion of the quantity and quality of work an artist has produced. Established in 1981, the SBYA foundation was not, at the outset, organised into different disciplines, and it was only by 1989 that contemporary choreographers such as Gary Gordon, and a year later, Robyn Orlin, got the nod. Phetla’s win is a first for a dancer associated with a traditional ballet company such as the Joburg Ballet.

“I’ve always respected the SBYA foundation,” says Phetla. “As an artist, you always work hard, not for the competitions, but because hard work makes it happen. It’s about being in competition with yourself. You can only be better than yourself.”

20 June 2019: Two male dancers in a still moment from ‘Wakanda’ by Kitty Phetla, this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist award winner for dance.

Space in dance and in jazz

“For my SBYA work, I collaborated with Nduduzo Makhathini, who won the award for jazz in 2015. Our production is called Going Back into the Truth of Space. I’ve followed Nduduzo’s career for years, and we both love the idea of space. I like to think of myself as very organic. I’ve always respected space. It has such a big meaning, and Nduduzo speaks it through music.”

Phetla feels choreography has always been inside her. “But there’s another voice inside me, that I’ve not yet explored: that of my ancestors. It’s the story I will tell in this collaboration with Nduduzo. Going Back into the Truth of Space acknowledges our ancestors and the space they’re in, because they are with us all the time.”

Schӧnberg feels Phetla’s SBYA award comes at a fortuitous time in her life. “Balletically, she is old. But this is the beginning of her next career. If everything orchestrates smoothly, she could have a phenomenal choreographic career ahead of her.”

She’s wistful at the mention of the future. “I like to take things one day at a time, but I appreciate how the world is looking at classical ballet: it’s breaking rules. At the end of the day, I’m just a dancer. I pursue the mastery of my craft in every way possible.”

But she feels she cannot take full credit for her dancing. “Like my clear skin, it was made for me. I didn’t make it. Something I can take ownership of is what dancing does for me.”

Going Back to the Truth of Space will be performed at Makhanda’s Great Hall from 27 to 29 June 2019.

Unbound, which comprises Phetla’s Wakanda and works choreographed by Shannon Glover, Esther Nasser and Kevin Durwael, will be performed at the Joburg Theatre, from 5 to 14 July 2019.

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