Curtains close on ballet company as covid-19 takes centre stage

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.  

A ballet dancer’s attire, which now includes masks. Photo: Anna Moross.

Joburg Ballet was rewarded with a standing ovation at the end of its first performance of the year, Don Quixotewhich 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 heatNew 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 small professional ballet company, established in 2001 and comprised of 30 dancers. Located in the bustling city centre at the Joburg Theatreits aim is to produce classic fulllength 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 yearsShe 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 VATThis lifeline exists because of their community development programmes and satellite schools, which offer children from previously disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to dance.  

Chris Vondomember 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 Africaand 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 Braamfonteinconsisting of about 120 dancers.  

Mohlatse Schane (24), is one of the dancers whose potential was realisedWalking into his interview, Mohlatse had the true presence of a dancer, from his turnedout 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 Zooman 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.


“Every day we were met with challenges and we still are,” Chele said.

Without the development of these students, the future growth of the company is something of a pipe dream. Nasser, aadvocate 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 needsFinance Minister Tito Mboweni stated in his 2019 budget speech that arts are 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 Ballets salaries, while the only other ballet company in South AfricaCape Town City Ballethas 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 balletThey start at the bottom, as aspirants, and work their way up to principal status 

From the satellite schoolMohlatse Schane is making his way up the ladder and is currently 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, hwas fuelled by the lack of cultural support in Brazil to move to South Africa.  

Bruno Miranda, a ballet dancer at Joburg Ballet is leaping into a jete ala second as rehearsals continue for the dancers at their studios in Braamfontein despite no productions. Bruno Miranda. Photo: Anna Moross

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 BrazilSo 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, Splitbeams 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 

The technical equipment required to produce a ballet production in theatres. MGG Productions, based in Sandton, Johannesburg.  Photo: Anna Moross

Joburg Ballet also utilises Vanessa Nicolau Theatre and Events. This company is involved in the décor and stage setup of performances.  

Vanessa Nicolau told Wits Vuvuzela that, going into the year, she was optimistic based on bookingsThe 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 productionChele explained that the 50% capacity restriction placed on theatres will reap 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 

The empty Joburg Theatre amidst the covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Anna Moross

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 performthere 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.”

Blurred lines

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


Review: A Night at the Ballet

Vuvu Rating: 8/10

The Joburg Ballet is proving yet again why it is considered the country’s largest and most prestigious professional ballet company, with its latest offering, the classic Don Quixote.

The romantic comedy is masterfully staged at the Joburg Theatre through vibrant costumes and scenery transporting the viewer into the world of 17th century Spain.

Don Quixote tells the story of a Don who is obsessed with finding adventure. On his quest for this adventure he meets the beautiful Kitri who is in love with a poor young barber, Basilio.

Kitri’s father does not approve of the match and has more ambitious marriage plans for her. The Don decides that Kitri is worth of his protection from all who may harm the young lady.

Prima-ballerina Burnise Silvius lived up to her reputation of being a vision of perfection, with every delicate move she made in the lead female role.

Jean Carlos Osma, as a toreador, and Javier Monier as a street boy, were notable as standout performers.

But despite the visual perfection of the dancers, their performances were not matched by that of the sound technicians at the theatre.

At times the music was too soft and transitions between tracks, usually seemless, were obvious to the audience. The sound issues were  clearly distracting and broke the “illusion” of the imaginary world created through the performance.

Despite this though, the show remains a must see, and ends its run this Sunday, September 13.

VIDEO: Brazilian male soloist at Joburg Ballet beats the stereotype

Brazilian male ballet dancer, Jonathan Rodrigues, 23 is a soloist at the Johannesburg Ballet. Through his craft, he is beating widely-held stereotypes of male ballet dancers.

Joburg Ballet CEO Dirk Badenhorst speaks on the significance of male ballet dancing as an artform that is crucial in the world we live in.

This video is a production of the 2014 Wits Journalism short course in television. 


Indepth2020: Counting the costs of covid-19

The in-depth research project, Counting the costs of Covid-19, was produced by the 2020 career-entry honours in journalism class at Wits University.

The class of 16 student journalists was split into four groups and allocated a mentor to oversee their research and production within a specific sub-theme. The feature articles listed below are the result of six weeks of independent work carried out before November 15, 2020.

TEAM HEALTH (with mentor Laura Lopez-Gonzalez)

  • Life after death in the time of covid-19, by Catia De Castro, (with video):
    The covid-19 pandemic, and corresponding health restrictions placed on hospitals and funerals in South Africa, have completely changed the way we grieve and say goodbye to our loved ones.
  • The price of being superhuman in a pandemic, by Vetiwe Mamba, (with audio):
    The coronavirus pandemic has put immense pressure on healthcare systems all over the world and has challenged the mental health of frontline workers, who walk a fine line between life and death every single day.
  • High-risk private healthcare workers under the covid whip, by Tshepo Thaela, (with video):
    While the vulnerability of those over 60 and with comorbidities is being addressed, healthcare workers in the private sector now need to address the challenges of running their practices as they risk infection, see fewer patients and face losing their business.
  • Covid-19 survivors face long-term health problems, by Palesa Mofokeng, (with audio): Recovered patients might not regain their previous health, nor fully recuperate from the Covid-19 disease, medical research reveals.

TEAM EDUCATION (with mentor Lizeka Mda)

  • Teachers, the unsung heroes of the pandemic, by Niall Higgins, (with audio):
    Primary school teachers at government schools in Benoni and Actonville, Gauteng, have gone beyond the call of duty to ensure the class of 2020 have been protected, educated and well-nourished despite the threats of the covid-19 pandemic.
  • Life or school – a mother’s choice, by Akhona Matshoba, (with video):
    The instability brought about by the covid-19 pandemic has in significant ways compromised the schooling career and academic progress of children with special education needs.
  • Food first, education after, by Khuleko Siwele, (with video):
    The national lockdown caused by the covid-19 pandemic meant that the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) was suspended for the first time since its inception in 1994, leaving millions of learners in South Africa without the security of a daily nutritious meal.
  • Foundation phase teachers confront the unexpected, by Laura Hunter, (with video):
    Foundation phase teachers in South Africa have been left reeling after new teaching and learning adjustments, varying from school to school, were made as a consequence of the covid-19 pandemic and nationwide lockdown.

TEAM JUSTICE (with mentor Sumeya Gasa)

  • Fight or flight for foreign nationals, by Zinhle Belle, (with video):
    The closure of borders and implementation of lockdown regulations to combat covid-19 in South Africa have had consequences for the wellbeing of foreign nationals, many of whom wrestled with the separation of their families and uncertainty over their migration status.
  • Sheltering the victims of South Africa’s ‘second pandemic’, by Emma O’Connor:
    “It was really challenging as many of the long-term shelters were closed and I had no more space to house these GBV victims, so all I could do was encourage the women to open a case against their abuser at the police station.” – Brown Lekekela, Green Door shelter.
  • It’s a life of shame, humiliation and stigma during covid-19, by Zikhona Klaas, (with audio):
    In South Africa, stigma and discrimination have mostly been associated with persons living with HIV and tuberculosis, but in the Mangolongolo community, Johannesburg, they are now also causing fear and panic among coronavirus survivors.
  • Human trafficking risks heightened in pandemic, by Dylan Bettencourt, (with video):
    The global coronavirus pandemic means the increased risk has brought with it fears that it might put vulnerable individuals and families are likely to beat greater risk of being trafficked. 

TEAM ECONOMY (with mentor Mfuneko Toyana)

  • Foreigners in Johannesburg struggle under pandemic regulations, by Zainab Patel, (with video):
    Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown have had a devastating impact on many business owners and employees. Included in this scenario are foreign nationals and undocumented people who have had to try to pick themselves up in usually packed commercial trade areas such as Fordsburg and China Mall, experiencing low recovery
  • SA’s NGO economy takes strain under covid-19, by Leah Wilson (with video):
    The economic effects of covid-19 on South Africa’s NGO landscape have resulted in community collaborations across Gauteng to overcome the challenges of the national lockdown.
  • Curtains close on ballet company as covid-19 takes centre stage, by Anna Moross, (with video):
    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.  
  • Online shopping keeps students en vogue and in the money, by Thobekile Moyo, (with video):
    University students, who are expected to have low disposable incomes, are also self-proclaimed big spenders in the world of fashion. However, their love of trending fashion has also encouraged them to be entrepreneurs by contributing to thrifting culture.
FULL-DISCLOSURE: This project was undertaken with support from the Google Journalism Emergency Relief Fund, which allowed the student journalists to work safely under the conditions of the covid-19 pandemic. The project was coordinated by Dinesh Balliah. Bongani Khoza was the multimedia mentor and James Beaumont the sub-editor.

Medics given legal advice

“The last thing you need is to have an accusation of rape against you for putting a speculum in.”

This was according to Dr Liz Meyer, Medical Protection Society (MPS) consultant, in her lecture titled Medical Legal Issues Relating To Surgery, organized by the Wits Students’ Surgical Society.

Meyer said sexual assault and substance abuse were the main reasons why medical students were dismissed from the Health Professionals Council of South Africa (HPCSA).

“You don’t get erased very easily, but if you do, it’s also very difficult to get back.”

Some records taken from doctors' notes in Mpumalanga hospitals.

Doctors don’t always know best

Meyer said the mindset in the medical profession has changed over time to pay more attention to patients’ rights, autonomy and expectations.

Doctors have faced court charges in the past for not tailor-making consent specifically to patients. She said patients must be made to understand the “material risk” of the procedures they may face.

“If you are considering an amputation, a ballet dancer is going to feel different about what is relevant to her in consent, than to a person that is already bound in a wheelchair.”

Etienne Raffner, 5th year medical student and co-founder of the surgical students’ society, said students were taught about consent before anything else in their degree.

"No, no no, nurse! I said slip off his spectacles!"

Communication is key

Meyer said registration with the HPCSA is a responsibility to conform to its ethical code, and doctors must not be afraid to name and shame negligent colleagues.

“If there’s somebody whose actions and work causes you concern, you must do something about it or otherwise, you are going to have problems.”

Meyer said it is important for doctors to share information clearly, especially where there is a language or experience gap. Clinical notes could be used in court, and it can be “very embarrassing” if not written properly according to Meyer.

Medical indemnity is big business

The MPS, which provides legal support to its members and compensates harmed patients, paid out R800m in claims last year.

Membership fees range from R100 a year for interns, to R220 000 a year for gynecologists, because they are considered “high risk”.

Prof Martin Veller, head of the Wits department of surgery, said it was “silly” for students to go into the profession without indemnity, regardless of the cost. Veller said he pays R80 000 a year on medical indemnity insurance.

Related article

Medical malpractice follow global trend – IOL

A Rare Leap from Honours to PhD

Two biochemistry students received such outstanding results in their honours year, they will be skipping Master’s and moving straight on to PhD degrees.  

Bianca Dias and Bradley Peter (both 22) completed their honours degrees last year and received above 80% overall.

The head of the School of Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB), Professor Rob Veale, said the decision to exempt these candidates from master’s degrees was based on “holistic assessments” of their academic, laboratory performance and personal factors that could affect their performance at PhD level.

“The selection and registration of a higher degree candidate depends greatly on their relationship with their supervisors, as this allows the supervisors the opportunity for good judgment of suitable candidates,” said Veale.

“Although the final decision of exemption is made by the Graduate Studies Committee (GSC) of the school in question, the discretion of the supervisors in the decision process in a key factor.”

According to the Faculty of Science Rules and Syllabus, a student who has shown a level of competence that satisfies Senate in their research, writings, experience and professional standing during their honours year may be admitted as a candidate for a PhD.

Member of the GSC, Dr Yasien Sayed, said no student in the history of MCB had ever been afforded this rare opportunity before.

“It’s not to say the school has not produced academically excellent students in the past,” said Sayed. “The fact that past excelling students weren’t offered this opportunity may be attributed to lack of awareness of this rule by many lectures, supervisors and students alike.”

Dias’s research, which is supervised by Professor Stefan Weiss, is focused on the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Although I’m a little anxious about the year because it will be very challenging, I am excited about this opportunity, and pleased that the university has this much faith in me.”

Peter, who is also a classical ballet dancer, planned to do his master’s at a university overseas when he was approached with the offer by his supervisor, Professor Heinrich Dirr. He said the science faculty took this step because they wanted to train more students at PhD level.

“I think the university wants produce more independent researchers.”