'We Have Touched People' : Harlem Dance Theater Stages Unifying Series in South Africa

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twenty years ago, the whites who controlled the arts in South Africa told Augustus van Heerden that he could never be a ballet dancer because his skin was black.

But Van Heerden, ballet master of the Dance Theater of Harlem, got the chance to prove them wrong recently when he mounted a South African stage for the first time in his life and, with his company, performed for a sold-out multiracial audience that included his mother and 20 other relatives.

"All the questions they (whites) have been asking for years and years and years--'Can blacks do it?' Well, now they know it can be done," Van Heerden, a quiet 42-year-old dancer, said later. "And there's no excuse. It should be done."

The Dance Theater of Harlem, a predominantly black troupe from New York, Sunday wraps up an energetic month of performances and workshops in Johannesburg. What they leave behind is a memorable lesson for white as well as black South Africans--and the tools to build bridges in the performing arts in this racially divided land.

"Our performances made a statement for whites and blacks here," said Lorraine Graves, 34, an American who has been with the troupe for 14 years. "It said, 'Look what can happen if a child is given an opportunity.' It doesn't matter whether you are rich or poor, black or white.

"If just 10% heard and saw and believed, then we've broken new ground," she added.

The ballet company reached out into the black neighborhoods of South Africa, especially the Johannesburg-area townships of Alexandra and Soweto, like no other foreign performers have before. The dancers and technicians ran some 50 seminars in running an arts tour, staging a performance, managing troupe finances, raising money for the arts--and, of course, dancing ballet.

"It was mind-boggling," said Arthur Mitchell, the 58-year-old founder and artistic director of Dance Theater of Harlem. "They all wanted to learn. And we were learning from them."

In the strife-torn townships, amid the cultural poverty imposed by more than four decades of apartheid, the dancers discovered a quality in black South African children that Mitchell calls "Harlem fine."

"It's an innate elegance," Mitchell said. "And I saw it there. When they performed, their backs came up, their chins came out. And they had an amazing desire to learn. We'd seen it in Russia, in Harlem, in Chicago, in Atlanta. And now we've seen it in South Africa."

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The New Yorkers also sampled South African culture, from the township music to the "gumboot dancing" of black mine workers.

"There are a lot of creative things happening in Soweto," said Woodburn Schofield, the company manager. "I was definitely impressed with the level of the arts."

Added Graves: "I really see a future for dance here. There's so much talent."

Van Heerden was 9 years old when his school, located in a Colored, or mixed-race, township near Johannesburg, attended a performance of "Swan Lake." On that day, his ballet aspirations were born.

"All it took for me to start dancing was to see one program," Van Heerden said. "This month we have probably touched a few thousand people. I hope we'll see the impact of that on South African dance in a few years."

Van Heerden didn't have the opportunities that blacks in South Africa have today. When he turned 22 in 1972, he found that his skin color prevented him from dancing in his own country. Ballet was considered a European art form and, in South Africa, a whites-only preserve. And whites told Van Heerden that blacks weren't suited to ballet.

So Van Heerden moved to New York, where he met kindred spirits in the Dance Theater of Harlem. Mitchell, the troupe's founder, had broken the color bar in America years before. Born in Harlem, Mitchell had performed with the New York City Ballet during the 1950s and '60s, becoming the first black male principal dancer in a major ballet company.

Deeply moved by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mitchell had decided to give something back to his community. His new company was founded in a Harlem garage, and its aim was to expose disadvantaged youngsters to the structure and discipline of the classical form of performing art.

In the years since, Mitchell has taken his company around the world. But the visit to South Africa was his first to sub-Saharan Africa.

The dancers' invitation was supported by a wide spectrum of South African political organizations, including Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, but also the more radical black groups that had opposed a visit last year by singer Paul Simon.

"We spoke to every group here, and they all said we should come," Mitchell said. Unlike other artists, who have made brief, perfunctory visits to black townships, Mitchell's company spent long days in the townships, focusing on black children.

"We didn't come to just perform and go away," Mitchell said. "That's what set us apart." By coming for the right reasons, he said, the company triggered a small truce between blacks and whites. South Africans who had never sat in the same room came together for the Dance Theater seminars and performances, finding a shared love for dance.

Although the dancers were overwhelmed by their reception in the townships, they weren't immune to the tension that has accompanied South Africa's rocky transition from white to multiracial rule.

In downtown Johannesburg, two white men attacked one of the African-American dancers and a white filmmaker accompanying the group. The men shouted racial epithets at the interracial couple and the filmmaker was stabbed, though not seriously hurt.

"We really tried to make it a point not to allow politics to affect us," Lorraine Graves said. But, she acknowledged, the dancers followed the country's troubles in the local papers, especially the massacre of 28 black protesters in a nominally independent black homeland about 500 miles south of Johannesburg.

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The Harlem company opened in the renovated Johannesburg Civic Theatre, giving 14 performances. Ticket prices were steep by South African standards, ranging from $32 to $40, but the company said 97% of the seats were sold. And the sponsors, including a South African bank and the liberal Market Theatre Foundation, gave away 50 seats each night to black township youth who could not afford to attend.

Both blacks and whites in the audiences were mesmerized by the performances, which received unanimous positive reviews in the local newspapers. Business Day called the performance "a range of feelings, superbly explored." And the Star, the country's largest daily, said the Dance Theater offered "the finest caviar for the connoisseur."

ANC President Mandela attended one of the early performances, telling the company backstage that it was one of the most enjoyable evenings he'd spent since his release from prison two years before.

For many white South Africans, seeing black ballet dancers on a stage was a welcome first in their country's troubled history.

"I always associated black people with far more rhythmic dancing," said Joan Falkenberg, a white woman from Johannesburg. "But I think it's great, fantastic and different."

During a break in one matinee, Ed Dexter, a white businessman, said the black dancers offered "an incredible lesson for whites and blacks here. It is a liberating act."

And Jennifer Wellsted, a 21-year-old white drama student, said the performance made her feel sorry "for all the black dancers who had talent and never got a chance here."

Glenda Fick, 32, a Colored lawyer, noticed that the whites sitting around her seemed delighted to see Felicity de Jager, one of two South African-born members of the troupe.

"All those elitist white people were cheering," Fick said. "And those were the same people who a few years ago wouldn't even allow blacks on stage."

But Arthur Mitchell left South Africa remembering, more than anything else, the spirit of reconciliation that he witnessed.

"People here want change," he said. "They all want the same thing."

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