When Lwanele Masiza dances on to the PE Opera House stage next week in the big-budget national ballet A Spartacus of Africa, few will know that he only started the gruelling art discipline three years ago.
A Spartacus of Africa runs from November 3-6 and is the first time the Motherwell dancer has set foot on a home town stage since appearing in Evita at the Savoy in 2012 in his matric year.
Masiza, 23, was a pupil at the Candice Johnstone School of Dance. “I was in her contemporary dance studio and I only started in ballet three years ago. I never did barre before!”
Nonetheless, his talents are put to good use in the role of Badu, which calls for a combination of ballet, drama and contemporary dance skills.
The South African National Dance Trust (SANDT) is able to bring A Spartacus of Africa to Port Elizabeth thanks to a grant of nearly R1-million from the national lottery.
It is the first stop of several upcoming seasons of the touring version of the ballet and the cast of 20 has three dancers from the Eastern Cape: Xola Willie, Milwhynn Williams and Masiza. In A Spartacus of Africa Masiza plays Badu, the brother of Crassus.
“It’s more of an acting role, I am the mean and evil brother who wants to take over his kingdom,” Masiza said. “If you’ve seen The Lion King, then you could compare Badu to Scar!”
And, although he would have preferred a role that included more dance, which is his first love, he is thrilled family and friends in Port Elizabeth will be able to see him in action.
His mother Nomsa Masiza, a teacher at Motherwell’s Imbasa Primary School, is justifiably proud of her son.
Although home base is in Motherwell NU5, Masiza was raised by his grandmother in Kwazakhele. “They always knew that I would go in this direction: I’d be the one pushing the table away when music came on. I’ve been like that since I was very young: I’d always come back from creche doing the whole performing thing.”
Masiza matriculated at Alexander Road High School before heading to Gauteng to study dance at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT). However, he had to take a break from his studies for several months last year to work on Spartacus and later again spent six months dancing on a cruise ship.
“I had to make a decision of whether to go back to school,” he said. “One thing just led to another, I didn’t want to stop dancing, it’s a way to help my parents with rands and cents – and I’d always wanted to travel the world!”
Choreographer Veronica Paeper has re-designed the original ballet that she created for Capab Ballet in 1984, incorporating contemporary dance with classical ballet. Ballet legend Paeper drew on the similarity between Rome’s treatment of their captives and the many down-trodden peoples in Africa and gave the ballet a mythical African slant, naming it A Spartacus of Africa.
Her retelling mirrors the original ballet about slaves fighting for freedom, Spartacus’s deep love for his wife Phrygia and Aegina’s guile helping her lover, Crassus, to quell the revolt.
The late Nelson Mandela’s fight for freedom for which he and others were prepared to die, links to the message behind Spartacus.
In the title role Amari, Casey Swales reprises the role he danced in 2015; Juan Carlos Osma also dances the lead role, partnered by Dyana Acuna as Fayola. She shares this role with Capetonian Elzanne Crause.
Cuban dancers Osma and Acuna appear by permission of Joburg Ballet. Nadira will be danced by Kristin Wilson. The role of Nagash, Amari’s nemesis, will be danced by Xola Willie and Milwhynne Williams.
The large-scale production involved local communities in as many aspects of the production as possible, including mentoring up-and-coming talent. For example, a group of Masiphumulelo women plaited thousands of recycled green plastic bags into vines to create part of the set.
Another project involved City Varsity students filming an educational documentary about bringing a ballet of this magnitude to the stage. That eight-minute DVD forms an introduction for school pupils who will attend the final dress rehearsal at each theatre.
The romantic and dynamic two-act ballet also has costumes by the late Dicky Longhurst, an award winning designer, which allow the athleticism of the dancers to shine.
A Spartacus of Africa is at the PE Opera House from November 3-6. Bookings are at Computicket. Tickets cost from R100 to R220 with group and special discounts available.