The Right Approach

White tutus on suspended white headless mannequins are lined upstage. They float, they are light. They’re in the background but good lighting reminds us of their ever-presence. Mamela Nyanza walks with a mannequin head in her hands and passes each dress. They’re all the same.

Traditional ballet is given a close eyeballing in The Last Attitude, which showed at the Dance Umbrella last week. With the presentation of the young ballerinas who must be perfected in stance and appearance, Nelisiwe Xaba and Nyamza reveal the inside world of ballet which has received much criticism in the context of what damage can be done to a dancer’s individuality and confidence. The girls must be perfect; they must conform.

Both trained in balletic technique, Nyamza and Xaba challenge the required perfection of the Western aesthetic of a slim and slight ballet dancer. Deconstructing this idea is done in form and content in a layered work. Their performance of traditionally male dance roles questions gender stereotypes; their black bodies performing a Western dance form which epitomises the bourgeoisie; the use of a dismantled ‘white’ mannequin, the plastically proportionate body. The striving for ideals, in beauty, in heteronormativity, is highlighted and ridiculed.

The trope of performativity is strong throughout the work. In the beginning, performance is questioned – when does it begin and end? In the starkness of house lights and silence, Xaba and Nyamza mark a rehearsal, sharing and showing their attitude of indifference to their roles. During the work, open wings reveal them readying themselves to ‘enter’ the stage, on the side lines we see their preparation, a deep breath or a costume adjustment, before the ‘performance’ is switched on and they assume their role.

Patriarchy and gender roles are brought to the fore in this work. Two women interrogate the role of the male dancer through history. With a good dose of clowning whilst performing perfect balletic technique, Nyamza parodies the male dancer’s dance belt (i.e. the codpiece) with an undeniably masculine symbol – the boxing glove shoved down her boxers.

The dramatism seen in traditional ballet is comically parodied by both Nyamza and Xaba, as is the posturing and excessive melodrama seen in the classics, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, as in many others. The world-renowned male ballet dancers, Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov are lauded for their skill but brought to the fore is the mockery male dancers endure for the un-masculine activity in which they’re involved. Is it? Xaba and Nyamza expose this through making the audience laugh at them fulfilling male roles… we should question why we laugh.

Vaslav Nijinsky is often credited as transforming the male ballet dancer role, and rightly, he did so much to transform his conservative society’s gaze in what a male dancer should be. Now Nyamza and Xaba, in The Last Attitude, redefine what a female dancer can be. The irony here is explained by Xaba in a recent interview, describing when men weren’t allowed to be part of the ballet as it was perceived to be too feminine. Nothing much has changed, with stigma attached to men who want to dance . As long as the role is relegated to supporting a female it seems vaguely accepted, but to be “a dancer” falls well outside of what it means to be manly.

Nelisiwe Xaba deconstructs the balletic body in The Last Attitude, choreographed with Mamela Nyamza. Photo by John Hogg..
Dance Umbrella 2016
Prog 2 ‘The Last Attitude’ choreographed and performed by Nelisiwe Xaba and Mamela Nyamza with additional dancers.The piece interrogates the politics of this ancient dance form (ballet), in particular the relationship between the male principal dancer and the ballerina.
The Dance Factory,Johannesburg. 27 February 2016.
Photograph: John Hogg

Rigidity in balletic technique, and its undeniable traditionalism in gender role prescription speaks to the rigidity in societal unwillingness to accept what lies outside of the norm – of masculinity, of the nuclear family unit, of power relations. Xaba and Nyamza deconstruct this excellently. They highlight the problematic perfection of ballet and speak to the distortion and deformation of the body, that true ballet form requires. The hidden pain of achieving that beauty smothered under a delicate smile.

The work is not particularly easy to watch. Why should it be? Traditional ballet has enjoyed audiences through the ages who require a neat narrative and satisfying ending. Nyamza and Xaba aren’t going to supply that. It’s not relevant to the here and now, it’s not relevant to them. The Last Attitude is slow and considered. It takes its time to give one the time to breathe it in. It’s serious. It’s funny.

Xaba and Nyamza have created a work that doesn’t deny, adapt, or attempt to transform the elitist traditional form. Instead they seek to analyse and deconstruct it. Who is it for? Where is its place in contemporary society? Should it be something denied as archaic? Can it be useful in trying to understand more in the world, in the dance world, in South Africa? With The Last Attitude, maybe it can.

By: Sarah Roberson

Roberson is a participant in the Dance Writer’s Workshop funded by the Goethe-Institut.

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