The Joburg Ballet has been on a journey of highs and lows through the covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, which have hobbled its ability to perform for live audiences while threatening a ripple effect on the arts economy of South Africa as the shadow of covid-19 looms over the future.Joburg Ballet was rewarded with a standing ovation at the end of its first performance of the year, Don Quixote, which kicked off its season with a bang on March 13, 2020. Just two days later, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national state of disaster, heralding the company’s final call.
This sounded a death knell for ballet productions, and the consequential financial implications have been far-reaching.
There have been five different lockdown levels, each prohibiting movement within sectors of the country. Although the nationwide lockdown in South Africa aimed to curb the spread of covid-19, it also resulted in a 51% drop in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the second quarter of the financial year.
While theatres were approved to open under lockdown level three, the restrictions made it almost impossible, from the 1.5-meter social distancing audience and dancers must abide by, to the capacity restrictions on theatres. Currently under level one, Joburg Ballet has yet to perform for a live audience, meaning no revenue this year.
Ballet companies around the world have felt the heat. New York City Ballet, one of the foremost ballet companies in the world, has had to cancel all performances for the rest of 2020, losing about $45 million in sales.
Joburg Ballet now finds itself at the centre of South Africa’s cultural and economic heartbeat, with no room to perform. It is a small professional ballet company, established in 2001 and comprised of 30 dancers. Located in the bustling city centre at the Joburg Theatre, its aim is to produce classic full–length productions and innovative original works.
Esther Nasser, CEO of Joburg Ballet since 2016, has been working in the ‘dance world’ of South Africa for many years. She explained to Wits Vuvuzela that they have lost between R4.5 and R6 million in revenue, which would have been used to generate the budget for the next season of shows, leaving little to work with.
Joburg Ballet’s survival kit
So how is Joburg Ballet surviving this harsh lockdown? Nasser said, with a sigh of relief, “The one thing that saved us this year is the fact that our grant was renewed by the City of Johannesburg.”
The grant began in 2013 and is given on a three-year basis, providing Joburg Ballet with R12 million, including VAT. This lifeline exists because of their community development programmes and satellite schools, which offer children from previously disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to dance.
Chris Vondo, a member of the mayoral committee of community development for the City of Johannesburg Municipality, said during the first announcement of the grant that, “We recognise the large steps the ballet company has taken in recent years towards transformation as a performing arts company in South Africa, and also its successful outreach programmes for the youngsters of our city.”
The three satellite schools are located in Soweto, Alexandra and the surrounding areas of Braamfontein, consisting of about 120 dancers.
Mohlatse Schane (24), is one of the dancers whose potential was realised. Walking into his interview, Mohlatse had the true presence of a dancer, from his turned–out feet to his perfect posture.
Growing up in a disadvantaged family, ballet was something that not only brought him joy but gave him hope for his future financial prospects. After learning ballet in Alexandra and joining one of Joburg Ballet’s satellite schools, his dream came true.
Mohlatse told Wits Vuvuzela, “It is a different feeling doing ballet in a place where it is only students, and then getting involved with the company. By doing this, you actually see the type of person you want to be by looking at people who are older than you in a professional company, who are where you want to be.”
Ballet is an art form that teaches emotional and physical discipline. Joburg Ballet has built a relationship with the departments of education and health to not only expose the youth to ballet, but also to shed light on the importance of taking care of one’s body.
Keke Chele, a former dancer and head of public relations and publicity at Joburg Ballet, emphasised with great passion that this relationship has continued as, “They saw the number of children we are reaching, and the number of kids being exposed to this [ballet], as well as the box office regeneration of money through growing audiences.”
Due to the covid-19 pandemic, Joburg Ballet’s satellite schools are running remotely over Zoom, an online conferencing service. While provisions have been made to supply students with necessary devices and equipment, dancing remotely is completely different.
Chele said that trying to find innovative ways to teach ballet in students’ unique environments is challenging.
Without the development of these students, the future growth of the company is something of a pipe dream. Nasser, an advocate for social cohesion and the inclusivity of ballet in South Africa, is concerned that there are other hidden challenges.
“In the imperfect world, we are sitting in a position where we can’t grow our school because we do not have the space or resources, which is why this is proving to be a challenge for the future of these children’s careers as professional ballet dancers,” said Nasser.
Broadly speaking, this is the type of growth the arts economy needs. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni stated in his 2019 budget speech that arts are a tool of soft power which needs the opportunity to grow, shedding light on the importance of financial support needed.
The dancers’ struggles
With no revenue stream from productions, the City of Johannesburg grant has also enabled the safeguarding of Joburg Ballet’s salaries, while the only other ballet company in South Africa, Cape Town City Ballet, has not been as lucky, having to retrench dancers.
Nasser said, “Even though the salaries are not great in this country for artists, and especially a ballet company, it puts Joburg Ballet in the forefront as being one of the very few ballet companies in the world that managed to keep their company going on full salaries.”
Chele explained, however, that due to the covid-19 pandemic dancers have been unable to undertake freelance jobs they rely on.
At Joburg Ballet, a dancer’s earnings range from R4 000 to R25 000 a month, depending on their level in the company. The hierarchy of dancers is standard throughout the competitive world of ballet. They start at the bottom, as aspirants, and work their way up to principal status.
From the satellite school, Mohlatse Schane is making his way up the ladder and is currently a member of the senior corps. Dancing is his main source of income, and while he was reluctant to state the specifics of his salary, he likely earns between R5 000 and R10 000 a month.
His passion for dance has been impaired by the covid-19 pandemic, leaving him feeling slightly hopeless.
“At the moment, in the arts in this country it is not a feasible lifestyle. For arts to survive, people need to be watching, admiring and pouring money into it. The arts in this country have never been the primary source of attraction, and during covid-19 it is even harder to keep art relevant,” Mohlatse said bitterly.
Joburg Ballet also attracts dancers from all over the world. Bruno Miranda (29), a Brazilian ballet dancer who joined the company three years ago, is a true performer who lives and breathes ballet. A member of the senior corps, he was fuelled by the lack of cultural support in Brazil to move to South Africa.
Sitting in the deserted cafeteria at Joburg Ballet, with the beautiful sound of classical music in the background, Miranda explained to Wits Vuvuzela that the financial struggles caused by the covid-19 pandemic weigh heavy on his mind.
“We can’t do any external gigs, and I also try to save money to go back to Brazil. So every job and thing (freelance event) I can do, I try, but this year was very difficult,” said Bruno.
“We are almost in December and we do not know what is going to happen next year,” he said, concern etched on his face.
The arts economy
The South African cultural and creative industries identified by the South African Cultural Observatory (SACO) contributed 1.7% to the country’s GDP in 2018, creating revenue of R63 billion a year and one million jobs.
While the arts spearhead freedom of expression in South Africa, their financial position has plummeted during covid-19. SACO has measured how the South African cultural and creative economy has shrunk. According to the research, 95% of the sector experienced the cancellation or indefinite postponement of events, with only 21% of companies able to pay employees full salaries.
The SACO review highlights the chain of cause and effect the impact of the cessation has caused, explaining the issue of inter-industry spending, an indirect impact of the covid-19 pandemic.
Joburg Ballet outsources companies to provide it with the necessary equipment required for productions.
Splitbeam, which provides the technical equipment, is currently in business rescue and has been since the end of April. Allister Kilbee, Splitbeam’s managing director, explained that the situation is dire. He told Wits Vuvuzela that confirmed jobs worth more than R6.5 million were lost during lockdown. “We are currently doing 5% of our normal turnover,” he said.
As a result, Splitbeam has released all its freelance staff and the 13 other staff members are receiving 20% of their salaries.
“The theatre industry and live event industry have not opened, and our people are still living very much in the same state that many people found themselves in at level 5. But we are currently on level 1 and we do not see the end of it, so I think we get the feeling it could go on for many months to come,” said Kilbee.
Joburg Ballet also utilises Vanessa Nicolau Theatre and Events. This company is involved in the décor and stage set–up of performances.
Vanessa Nicolau told Wits Vuvuzela that, going into the year, she was optimistic based on bookings. The announcement made by the president, however, set a different path in motion. Nicolau explained that their expected turnover of about R2.5 million became revenue of R100 000 for the year.
With no money to pay her employees, they had to claim from the Unemployment Insurance Fund, meaning that the 22 employees now receive between R3 400 and R6 500 a month. Nicolau said, “It has been our saving grace.”
Both Splitbeam and Nicolau Theatre and Events are concerned about what the future holds. If productions do not kick off any time soon, they are both looking at closure.
Joburg Ballet’s prospects
While Joburg Ballet forages through its mysterious life during covid-19, they do plan to leap back onto stage as soon as possible. This, however, depends on the level of lockdown and the safety protocols involved.
In December Joburg Ballet should be preparing for its final production. Chele explained that the 50% capacity restriction placed on theatres will reap a huge financial loss. The question of ticket prices has also emerged: should Joburg Ballet increase ticket prices to cover losses?
“It just seems like a bit too much of a risk right now because there are no guarantees,” said Chele, who is in two minds about the decision.
Whether a ballet company existing without being able to perform is sustainable into the future is uncertain. According to Joburg Ballet’s CEO, in the long run, if the company is unable to perform, there may be implications for its City of Johannesburg funding.
Nasser concluded by saying, “There is that one little matter that could scuff us if the second wave comes.”
This is concerning for many companies in the arts sector. “If the pandemic carries on for much longer, we could lose the entire theatre and arts sector of the economy and companies like mine will no longer exist,” Kilbee said.
With the South African economy going into its fourth quarter of negative economic growth, things are not looking up.
What this means for the future of Joburg Ballet and the other production companies involved in the arts is unclear. This unpredictability has left many companies in the dark, and what the financial future holds for the arts economy only time will tell.
FEATURED IMAGE: A ballet dancers attire, which now includes masks. Photo: Anna Moross