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Kitty Phetla: dancing to her own tune

Published on 23 June 2019

Kitty Phetla is a senior soloist and choreographer at Joburg Ballet. She has toured and performed extensively on stages across the globe. One of her most noteworthy recent performances was her Queen Modjadji-inspired Rain Dance for Cape Town, in situ at the then-parched Theewaterskloof Dam.

You grew up in Johannesburg. How did you discover dance? And what led you to your career as a dancer? 

I grew in Alexandra township in Johannesburg and went to Orange Grove Primary School. During my time there we were offered karate and ballet as extra murals — I chose ballet. That is when I was ‘discovered’ by choreographer and teacher Martin Schoenberg and I’ve never looked back.

You are currently a senior soloist at Joburg Ballet. As one of only a few high-profile black ballerinas, what do you believe are the challenges and hurdles faced by young black dancers in particular? As a traditional Western art form, what is the pull of ballet for African audiences?

Young black dancers lack the mindful guidance of what is truly required to conquer the physical craft of being a dancer. If that is achieved, only then can a young dancer be mindful about their dancing and become the kind of artist they want to be.

Our African support system for the arts has existed for years on end. It was a struggle at first to get black South African audiences to support ballet — understandable due to the lack of knowledge of this particular art form. But, as the years have passed and we have consistently been taking ballet to our people, our black audiences have grown year in and year out. We have truly come a long way as South Africa.

In his Budget speech in February, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni revealed that the government was considering funding the creation of a national theatre, orchestra and a national ballet troupe as a way to fund and add to the country’s ‘cultural canon’. This intention was both welcome and criticised. What are you feelings about it?

I was filled with hope when Tito Mboweni mentioned funding a new theatre, orchestra and a national ballet company. As it stands, there are only two national ballet companies in South Africa, which is truly sad for a country such as ours. It is in need of more ballet companies as that alone secures jobs for classical dancers, musicians and practitioners. We are in dire need of this kind of hope and for new possibilities for our country.

Your dancing of the ‘Dying Swan’ in Swan Lake in Russia in 2012 was a breakthrough role, with you later performing it in Amsterdam for former president Nelson Mandela. As a senior soloist with Joburg Ballet, what are your favourite roles to dance? How do you take such classical roles and make them your own?

Besides the Dying Swan, the role of Myrtha from the classical ballet Giselle is my favourite. It is a very intense and physically difficult role. Crafting and constant rehearsals are the best and simplest ways for me to prepare for my roles.

In a National Arts Festival first, you will, as this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance, be collaborating with a former Jazz Young Artist on a new piece. Tell us about your work with Nduduzo Makhathini — how did you come together? What is your work about?

The idea of Standard Bank Young Artist Dance and Music genres crossing floors in collaboration has not been featured before at the Festival, especially not in the classical and jazz forms. I have been Nduduzo’s fan for a long time and have been wanting to work with him for just as long. I was then blessed to receive the 2019 Young Artist award. This was the perfect platform for me to share this vision that my manager Lindsay McDonald has helped to mould. Together we have crafted the vision of how our concept will live and breathe.

The work we are presenting is titled, Going Back to the Truth of Space. We join forces to offer a tribute to the divine lineage of souls, who occupy, inform and influence the spaces of us as artists. We embrace the realm of the ancestors as an evolving space and, drawing together the existence between dream state and reality, we connect with space and the ancestors through music and dance.

What is in the pipeline for Kitty Phetla? Any other exciting projects or collaborations we can look forward to?

Besides still feeling so blessed and fortunate for being awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Dance, I look forward to many more projects that bring dance to the fore. I hope to inspire more girls and women. Coming soon is my new work that I’m choreographing for Joburg Ballet called Wakanda Lives.