Arts: Crossing over to a new place

Once a bastion of whites-only privilege, Durban's Playhouse is now open to all South Africa. By Naseem Khan
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The Independent Culture
The man who built Durban's Playhouse must have been suffering from a bad case of nostalgia. There it stands, under the strong South African sun, a strange parody of Surbiton stockbroker's Tudor. Pseudo half-timbering abounds, inside and out; a mini (non-functional) portcullis graces a cavernous entrance. If anything could stand as a memorial to the siege-mentality of apartheid, the Playhouse is it.

It's not a memorial, though, it's a living, working, all-singing-'n'- dancing arts centre. And the race is now on to turn it round, so that this fortress of the old can embrace South Africa's new post-apartheid rainbow society.

The weight of history is, of course, intense. In the old days, the Playhouse was one of four national centres that were the focus for all the arts in South Africa. Here, white Natal flocked to see the resident ballet company in traditional dance classics in the 1,200-seater main house, the Western theatrical canon in the 480-seater theatre, and intimate work in the Studio (170 seats), Loft (130 seats) and supper-theatre. Scores of famous and not-so-famous stars came, many of whom contributed favourite recipes to a commemorative volume: Spike Milligan is there, recommending a revolting-sounding Sweet Spaghetti that was surely his secret weapon against apartheid.

"It was," says Johann Zietsman, the centre's new chief executive, "the citadel of elite art-forms. Very exclusive." And, although Durban did not operate overt apartheid, there's no doubt, he says, that the building's general ambience, programming and pricing would effectively have placed it out of bounds for non-whites. "The challenge is to make it all it wasn't: to retain quality but at the same time to make it accessible to everybody."

The arts in post-apartheid South Africa are not immune to the traumas and confusions that beset other institutions seeking a new role. Can such bastions of white privilege re-invent themselves? Or are they too compromised by their pasts? Politically, the heat is on for them to change - and to change fast. The question is: how to do that and still balance their books.

In its ethnic make-up, the Playhouse's new management team is itself a reflection of the new South Africa. "Do you realise," asks the dance director (white), "that a few years ago we would never have been round the same table, let alone discussing these issues." General manager Ronnie Govender (Indian), a playwright who once boycotted the building in the bad old days, admits that there is pressure to mount "fusion work". But nobody is arguing for cosmetic solutions: African operas - a new initiative at the Playhouse - are clearly controversial. Meanwhile Glen Mashinini (African), head of development, is helping to set up satellite arts centres in the surounding townships. Last year, the outreach programme played to 52,000 children in the province of KwaZulu Natal, and it's growing.

The changes are best seen in the centre's dance programme. When its director, Lynn Maree, arrived in Durban after 26 years of self-exile in Britain, she found a first-rate ballet company firmly ensconsed. She has now added a lively annual festival, the Shongololo (South African for "millipede"), for new young dance of all types, and - even more expressive of the new South Africa - a second company called Siwela Sonke (a Zulu term that means "Crossing Over to a New Place, All Together"). Its 10 young dancers reflect just that aspiration. African, white, Indian, they represent a range of backgrounds, from indigenous African and gum-boot to Western ballet and contemporary dance styles, while their repertoire, under artistic director Jay Pather, draws on all the streams of dance available in the country. One piece, based on the concept of non-violence that Gandhi pioneered in South Africa, has already toured to India. But fusion has to be approached gently, says Pather. "How can one find fusion when our lives are still so little fused?"

"There are still differences between us," admits Thulani Ndlovu, one of the company: "300 years of colonialism are not easy to remedy." "We have 11 official languages," adds Shanita Jugmohan, the one Indian in the group: for her, dance is the lingua franca. "We must make dance heard in our country."

Work like theirs will, hopes Johann Zietsman, persuade disgruntled whites to sample the new South Africa that has infiltrated their old Playhouse. "People keep wanting to know when things will 'get back to normal'," he says. "And I say, 'This is normal'. And for every one person who feels a sense of loss, 10, I believe, are feeling pleasure."