Cupcakes & Conversation with Burnise Silvius, Principal dancer, The South African Ballet Theatre

April 5, 2012

Cupcakes & Conversation

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Cupcakes & Conversation with Burnise Silvius, Principal dancer, The South African Ballet Theatre

ballet dancer in Giselle

Photograph : John Hogg

What motivates you at 8am on a Monday morning ?

I love being active, it’s become a way of life. I look forward to getting into class, especially after a two-day break. It is wonderful to get back into the studio and work up a sweat.

Why ballet ?

I can’t remember wanting to do anything else – it wasn’t a conscious decision, ballet has always been a part of my life. My Father played the violin for the PACT (the now defunct-Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal) Orchestra at the South African State Theatre in Pretoria. PACT Ballet was also housed in the complex and as a child and my Father often took me to the theatre to see the ballet. I remember receiving heavily discounted tickets at the half-hour call if seats were still available at the box office and we often took advantage of these special offers.

What are you looking forward to dancing during 2012 & what are the big challenges likely to be for you ?

If funding permits, SABT will present the full length Le Corsaire in July, in partnership with Mzansi Productions at the Joburg Theatre. Although I have performed the pas de deux, variations and coda from this ballet, I have not performed the full-length version.  A new full-length ballet is such a gift, not only to the audience but to the dancers too. This will definitely be a highlight, but a challenge for me too. At SABT, we only have at the most, two days to move a major production onto stage. We rehearse in the studio until the Tuesday and then have just Wednesday and Thursday to run the production before it opens to the public and press on Thursday night. It can be quite a challenge to get the orchestra, lighting, sets, costumes, props and dancing together in such a short space of time, it can be nerve-wracking but somehow, we always get it together!

ballet dancers on stage

"Giselle" by The South African Ballet Theatre. Rehearsal at The Nelson Mandela Teatre at the Johannesburg Theatre in Braamfontein.Featuring Burnise Silvius as Giselle and Michael Revie as Albrecht. Photograph : John Hogg

Who would you most like to dance with & what would you dance ?

I’ve always thought it would be magical to dance with Fred Astaire!

If you could dance anywhere in the world (not only in a theatre), where would you dance ?

In 2010, South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup. The FNB Stadium, now renamed Soccer City hosted several big matches there, as well as rock superstars U2 on their 360ͦ South African tour. Presenting classical ballet in such a venue would do a lot to expose our art form to those who have not had the opportunity to enjoy it.

How do you prepare your pointe shoes ?

I sew on ribbons and elastic and darn the front of the shoe with dental floss. I wear Freed and usually have two pairs of shoes ready for use at any given time. As SABT is a non-profit making organisation, our pointe shoe budget is limited so we must all make our shoes last as long as possible. The import cost alone is hugely expensive given the prohibitive exchange rate and it’s sometimes a challenge for me to get my shoes into the country in time for performances! I rotate these two pairs for class and rehearsals, swapping them throughout the day.

Ms Silvius in rehearsal at SABT studios in Braamfontein.

Ms Silvius in rehearsal at SABT studios in Braamfontein. Photograph : Martin Rhodes-Business Day

What is your daily routine at the moment ?

I wake up at 7am and leave home around 08h20. I drive myself to the Joburg Theatre, SABT’s home in the central business district of Braamfontein, dodging peak-hour traffic (which can be horrendous in Johannesburg when it’s raining, or the traffic lights are out!). I live in the north of the city and need to factor in sufficient time to arrive at the theatre to warm up and stretch properly before class.

There is a compulsory Company class, six days a week from 10h00 – 11h15 followed by tea and rehearsals until 13h30. At SABT female dancers are required to do centre work en pointe. We then break for lunch and continue rehearsing until 17h00 or 18h00. I don’t always get a lunch break as I must fulfil publicity engagements or prepare for the next rehearsal with my dance partner during this hour. I also coach a select group of young dancers from the SABT Academy a few times a week from 17h00 – 18h00.

On my way home, I often stop at the greengrocer before preparing light supper for my husband and I. I aim to be in bed by 22h00 but mustn’t forget to prepare class if I am teaching the next morning! Being a professional ballet dancer is a lifestyle as much as a profession and if I am not sufficiently rested, I may injure myself.

What do you eat during the course of a typical working day ?

For breakfast I enjoy a cup of tea and rusks at home, followed by fresh fruit straight after class. In South Africa we are blessed with locally grown excellent fresh fruit and I love oranges, apples and pears. I have a light lunch in the Joburg Theatre canteen as eating too much before rehearsal makes me lethargic.  Dinner is often a salad and protein with a handful of chewy sweets for dessert!

You can ask six famous people to dinner – who would you invite ?

Ex-President Nelson Mandela is the first to come to mind. Also tennis pro Rafael Nadal – for obvious reasons! I would love to meet my favourite composer Pytor Tchaikovsky. Ex-South African choreographer John Cranko, Royal Ballet ballerina Darcey Bussell would join us and of course, Master Chef Gordon Ramsay – to cook for us!

What would surprise people about you ?

I’m not sure I should admit to this but I love 80’s pop group Air Supply! It’s a bit embarrassing but I love their music.

Who inspired you to dance ?

I was privileged to see the beautiful PACT ballet dancers while  was growing up in Pretoria. Dancers such as Catherine Burnett , Beverley Bagg and Liane Lurie to name a few. At the Pro Arte Alphen High School, we also watched videos of Sylvie Guillem, a real inspiration!

Photograph : John Hogg

"Giselle" by The South African Ballet Theatre. Rehearsal at The Nelson Mandela Teatre at the Johannesburg Theatre in Braamfontein. Featuring Burnise Silvius as Giselle and Michael Revie as Albrecht. Photograph : John Hogg

What is your best piece of advice ?

I often tell the SABT Academy dancers that “you can’t do more than your best. As long as you know that you have done your very best, and given 200%, you can’t expect more.” I also don’t expect anything less than 200% from my students!

How do you prepare in the hours before a show ?

At SABT, it’s common knowledge that I am the first to arrive at the Theatre! I like to have my hair, shoes, make-up and costumes ready at least 1 hour and 15 minutes before the performance starts. I always get onto stage early to check my props or go through a few last-minute steps with my partner. I like to ‘feel’ the stage before the curtain goes up. Sitting at home or in my hotel room before a performance makes me nervous; it’s better to be busy in the dressing room, which I often share with my good friend and fellow Principal dancer Anya Carstens.

How do you deal with the stress of performing ?

Despite sixteen years of being a professional dancer, I still get nervous. I have learnt how to cope with it, although it will never go away. It is good to have a few nerves to keep the adrenaline going. If my nerves are particularly bad, I will take a homeopathic relaxant.

Which role has tested you the most & how ?

The most testing roles for me would be both Odette/Odile in Swan Lake and Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. These classics have been in the repertoire since the 19th century, so many people are familiar with them. Most people already have their favourite dancer in a particular role so there are always comparisons made. Having to change character mid Swan Lake is also a challenge, not only technically but emotionally too.

If you were asked to design your own ballet costume, what would you create ?

The last costume I would design would be a unitard -I despise them! I love tutus but they must be comfortable and not too heavy. Sometimes the most beautiful tutu is too full of embellishment and this makes them heavy and difficult to perform in.

What do you look for in a dance partner ?

Some men have a natural feel for partnering and this is a gift. I prefer dancing with a partner who engages with me on stage, he must be totally ‘in the moment’ and travel the journey of the fairytale with me. At SABT, we pride ourselves on telling the story and the full-length ballets are always the most popular. Having such a partner makes performing far more enjoyable and it’s much easier if we are both 100% in character. I also prefer a partner who is a little taller than I; I like to look up at him!

What is your favourite quote ?

“With every door that closes, another opens!”

Do you have a ‘signature step’ – one that comes naturally to you ?

I enjoy hopping en pointe, a good example are the hops on the left foot in Giselle’s variation in Act 1. I have been rehearsing this variation for over a month now as SABT presents Giselle from April 12th but, although the step comes easily to me, I must still concentrate very carefully to prevent an ankle injury.

A phrase I use far too often is … ? 

“So anyway………..”. My home language is Afrikaans but I speak English a lot.

What’s been your best on-stage moment so far ?

I will never forget my debut as Giselle, it was my first Principal role in 1997 with PACT Ballet. My Albrecht was Kimbrian Bergh and the performance was at the South African State Theatre. I was coached by PACT Ballet’s Artistic Director Dawn Weller. I had dreamt of that night for so many years and it was everything I expected it to be.

Do you have a secret skill which no-one knows about ?

I’m a pretty good baker, I even put my pointe shoes in the oven to keep them hard! My favourite recipe is a killer banana bread. The secret is not to use a blender- rather mash the bananas with a fork!

In terms of your ballet career, where would you like to be in a year from now ?

I hope to keep learning and remain injury-free. I would also like to grow as a coach as I find it rewarding when the SABT Academy dancers respond and improve.

What is your exit strategy, for the time when you stop dancing, and how did you plan it ?

I would love to carry on working with SABT, to share what my coaches have taught me, with the next generation. SABT has an extensive Development School providing free ballet lessons to children in previously disadvantaged communities such as Soweto and Mamelodi. I would like to assist these children reach for their dreams, and give them the same opportunity which shaped and blessed my professional life.

Bernise Silvius appears in the title role of Giselle at the Joburg Theatre from April 12th. Bookings: 0861 670 670 or online via the Joburg Theatre website.


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