Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Interview with Spellbinding SA Ballerina Kitty Phetla

by Joey Legodi

They say you can take the girl out of the township, but you can’t take the township out of the girl. From the dusty streets of Soweto to the grandest world stages, Kitty Phetla has taken the township within her, coupled it with class and so much poise that today she stands tall above the rest. Recently featured on the SABC 3 series Icons, I decided to have a chat with this remarkable young woman, She is an award-winning ballerina, choreographer and model, and I spoke to Kitty Phetla about her success thus far.

1. Who is Kitty Phetla? Where did you grow up? What has shaped the person, the woman, the human being you are today?

Kitty is still that nine-year-old tomboy from Soweto who fell in love with the arts. I have a lot of respect for what I do and that has shaped me as a person. My family has always been very supportive and I believe that it is my duty as a South African ballerina to represent my country as best I can.

2. How did your journey as a ballerina begin?

Martin Schönberg picked me from a crowd of 60 hopeful children, crammed into a hall at Orange Grove Primary School, all eager to begin the metamorphosis to become a ballerina. We were given a choice of extramurals, and I thought I would try ballet, even though it was the first time I had heard the word, because it might be fun, a little outrageous. I still don’t know why Martin picked me. But I’ve never looked back since then, and he was my coach until the age of 25.

After training with Martin Schonberg in classical ballet, Spanish dancing, Afro-fusion and contemporary dance, I joined his Ballet Theatre Afrikan. I won a number of international awards and participated in several competitions, then in 2002 I left to establish Mzansi Productions (now the Joburg Ballet).

3. For a long time in South Africa, when one mentioned ballet and the black individual it was almost a taboo of sorts. What progress do you think has been made in changing that?

I think ballet is breaking down cultural barriers and South Africa has come a long way. I still perform at underprivileged schools with the Joburg Ballet. We try to send a message that ballet is for the people. There’s a lot of hunger for the arts, and I think there’s so much more we can do when it comes to fostering the arts within our own communities and I try to focus on that.

4. People would say there is a reason that ballet is not popular in the black culture and that we have a lot more African/traditional dances that young black people can partake in. What would you say to that?

Ballet has always been seen as a westernised art, but we’re slowly breaking that stigma. Ballet, and the arts, is for our people. We’ve come a long way in the last 20 years of democracy and I appreciate that ‒ I love the chemistry in this country and see many opportunities.

5. What barriers do you think you have broken in your career and were any of them conscious choices?

I was the first black ballerina to perform Anna Pavlova’s famous solo The Dying Swan in 2012 in Russia, and I transformed the role and made it my own in the process. Traditionally, the dance is performed in a pink tutu with pink tights and shoes, but it was Martin’s idea for me to wear a black tutu and black stockings and shoes, because I am black. That was how my Dying Swan was born, and to this day, people love it.

6. How are you contributing to getting more black young people introduced to the art?

I am actively involved with Joburg Ballet in a number of youth outreach programmes reaching over 300 promising dancers from townships.

7. What are your dreams for ballet in South Africa?

I live to inspire more black people to be interested in the arts and I’m intent on helping other black children enjoy the same kind of experiences that I did through the arts.

8. What dreams do you have for yourself?

I’d like to explore different ways of expanding myself as an artist and to break other boundaries through hard work and discipline. I’ve still got so much to learn as a person and an artist.

9. Your success as a ballerina in South Africa is unparalleled. What is your recipe for success?

The ability to strive for greatness through independent thought and focus.

10. When I think icon, I immediately think a mature individual who has had decades to hone and perfect their skill in establishing themselves in their career. You are a young woman, and are already regarded as an icon. What does that mean to you?

It’s surreal because I haven’t considered myself as an icon. I’ve always identified myself as a person who inspires and influences.

11. How did you feel when you were told about this honour being bestowed on you?

I’m very humbled by the experience – I think the honour is bigger than I am because being named an icon is not just about the title. It’s about inspiring others to follow their dreams and to work hard. I hope I can influence people in a positive way.

12. What do you think it does / will do for your career?

It will make me more determined to reach my goals and to strive for success in everything that I do.

13. Besides this, what has been your most memorable, stand-out moment in your career?

My performance of The Dying Swan which I performed in Amsterdam for former president Nelson Mandela and the Dutch Royal Family lingers in my mind as the greatest. It was an amazing experience for me.

14. When do you think we will get to a point where Kitty Phetla will no longer be called a black ballerina, and just a talented ballerina?

I’ve already earned the respect of just being a ballerina. Success has nothing do with luck. It’s about the work that you do – not just the hard work, the sweating - but what your mind tells your body. When you have the know-how and the intelligence, and you have been mentored well – when you understand what you are trying to achieve - that’s when your passion really comes to life and I am eternally grateful to Martin Schönberg and Joburg Ballet for seeing that in me.

15. What would you like your contribution to ballet in South Africa to be synonymous with?

Tenacity! When you understand what you are trying to achieve and you apply yourself to work hard and never lose sight of that vision ‒ that’s when your dreams are realised.

I then asked Filmmaker and Photographer Adrian Steirn, who had the pleasure to paint Kitty’s portrait, on what his impressions of Kitty were, and he gladly obliged.

1. Adrian, why Kitty Phetla?

Kitty Phetla is a young South African woman who has emerged from the townships and become one of South Africa’s illustrious ballerinas. To understand the journey she’s taken to become ‘The Black Swan’ is an inspiring story about discipline and perseverance and what can be achieved through independent thought and focus.

2. You had the opportunity to chat with her, and to do a portrait of her; what immediately comes to mind when her name is mentioned?

Persistence, grace and humility.

3. What about her do you think makes her special / stand out?

Kitty shows us what can be done if you set your mind to something, work hard and are willing to challenge stereotypes too readily accepted by society.

4. What essence of her did you capture in the portrait?

Kitty is photographed posing on the surface of a lake, as though she is dancing on the water. The portrait is a tribute to her role as the first black woman to perform The Dying Swan in Russia.

As a pioneer in her industry, Kitty Phetla is the perfect example that you don’t have to be a certain colour, age or from a certain background to achieve your goals.

To catch some of the ICONS Tune in every Sunday on SABC 3 at 20h27.

21 ICONS South Africa is an annual collection of photographs and short films of South Africans who have reached the pinnacle of achievement in their fields.

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