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Dawn Weller, Grande Dame of SA ballet, exists gracefully

Ruth Harris & Jansie Kotzé

Rushing into a trendy Pretoria coffee shop, we recognise her immediately by her poise and beauty as she sips a decadently frothy cappuccino. Her smile towards us is wide and immediate. It is soon apparent though, that her sophisticated diminutive frame belies a strength of character and determination that came about through years of self-discipline to carefully mould her body to adapt to the rigours of her craft — and perfecting both.

Dawn Weller has danced since the very early age of 2 and a half. She rose quickly to the upper echelons of the ballet world, and was a principal dancer and then ballerina with PACT ballet before she became the artistic director in 1983 and director of the State Theatre ballet school, which she founded in 1994. It is not difficult to see that her stage personality was recognised at an early age and indeed flourished, yet she insists that she “had a difficult body to work with”. This made her realise that “more often than not, opportunities exist outside our comfort zones”.

Asked how it feels to be DAWN WELLER, a name spoken in hushed tones through art and ballet circles, she smiles, as if harbouring an inner secret.

Perhaps that is the biggest challenge, when confronting her: she always seems to be one step ahead of you. She admits that her favourite roles as a dancer were the ones that required the most acting — Juliet of Romeo and Juliet, is a perennial favourite as “she evolves and transforms as a young girl”. Like most dancers, she never had the chance to be a “normal” teenager. Their lives consist of grueling training sessions, which stunt the growth and keep the body in a pre-pubescent state for much longer than that of the average girl. This, combined with the lack of interaction with the world outside of the studio, often means that dancers are “emotionally immature”. She looks wistful when talking about this lack of a “normal” childhood and we sense that she is adopting another facet of the young Juliet.

We break her reverie and she admits that she married and had her first child when she was still a dancer with PACT as “she wanted it all”. The fact that she identifies with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, as a dancer and as a mother, is an indication of the depth of her maternal side. Tolstoy had come across an article about a woman who threw herself underneath a train, in a particularly violent end to her existence. He pondered about the reasons for this and so produced Anna Karenina — who commits suicide after her child is removed from her care — as an answer. According to Weller, most dancers are real homebodies and would, unlike popular belief, far rather stay home with their families than paint the town red. “My home is important to me, because when you stop (performing) what do you have?” Weller adds.

Her thirteen-year-old daughter dances, but she soon realised that dancing was not her son’s forté when he demanded to know, halfway through his barre exercises, whether he could go and have “a doughnut and a coke”. She accepted his decision without hesitation but appreciates and encourages his interest as a spectator of ballet.

Even though it is hard to see this glamorous figure in the role of mother, as the Director of the State Theatre Ballet she often has to take on a nurturing role towards the dancers. Since the ignominious closure of the State Theatre, she has found positions for most of “her dancers” with overseas companies. She speaks of a talented eleven-year-old dancer from a disadvantaged background, whose passion for ballet fuels her tiny body through endless training sessions, late, hungry nights and the inevitable long, lonely journey home. Her look of resignation echoes the despair felt by pupils and dancers of the State Theatre, because the Government’s closure of the Theatre has effectively sounded the cultural guillotine for the arts and systematically destroyed the dreams of many an aspiring ballerina.

The real tragedy of the “temporary” closure of the State Theatre is that artists like Dawn Weller will not allow the lack of opportunity in South Africa to hold them back. One wonders how the government can refer to the closure as a mere mothballing of performances, when most artists are already on their way overseas to better-paid opportunities. Weller is (as we’re speaking) on her way to Hong Kong to direct the ballet, La Bayadèrè, which the Hong Kong Ballet have bought from her. This will rob many a dancer of a role-model. She refuses to practice her “artform substandard”, but simultaneously mourns the impact the departure of artists like herself will have on the South African artscape. “The decision to close the State Theatre will affect generations to come,” she says with an unaffected air of sadness.

She pauses to think for a while and then quite rightly points out that ballet is no more European than soccer, as a matter of fact ballet has a much more global appeal as the purchase of La Bayadèrè by an Eastern Country proves. Yet obviously the government feels that ballet does not fit in with the idea of the African Renaissance. Her plea, however, is not for the loss of the arts in itself, but rather for the loss of the dreams and inspiration of the children.

She is an inspiring, erudite woman and it is unfortunate that this Government has let such a major contributor to the arts slip through their fingers. It is amazing that before 1963, no Arts council existed and dancers were forced to go overseas — more than 30 years on, we have come full circle. Dawn Weller admits that it is impossible to grow old as a dancer, but we sense that she will be around in her capacity as a dancer, captivating audiences and young minds alike.

Her fans will assure you that Dawn Weller is quite capable of working magic, but they will also tell you that Dawn Weller is too larger-than-life to easily disappear and certainly won’t do so quietly or without style.

“Yes, I can be pretty grand sometimes,” declares the doyenne of South African ballet, Dawn Weller without embarrassment or excuse — and you can’t help but agree: this is one grand lady!

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