Johaar Mosaval. Picture: SUPPLIED
Johaar Mosaval. Picture: SUPPLIED

From District Six to Covent Garden — the life and achievements of ballet legend Johaar Mosaval were celebrated at the recent Suidooster Festival in Cape Town.

Born during apartheid into a religious community that rejected ballet, and far too short to be a principal dancer, Mosaval nonetheless became the first Muslim principal dancer of colour to join The Royal Ballet company in England.

Performed in honour of his 90th birthday, which was celebrated in January, The Johaar Mosaval Journey was presented by Cape Town City Ballet at Artscape, the theatre complex (then named Nico Malan) where Mosaval made history in 1976 by being the first black dancer to perform there.

Grant van Ster, a young choreographer who has built up a solid reputation through his Figure of Eight Dance Collective, produced and choreographed the tribute. He has recently put his creative stamp on big-budget stage productions such as West Side Story and Aunty Merle, The Musical.

"People often compare Johaar to Nijinsky. This is a man who got to perform a solo piece during Queen Elizabeth’s coronation," Van Ster said during a break in rehearsals.

Body of work: Grant van Ster (centre) and dancers from Cape Town City Ballet rehearse The Johaar Mosaval Journey, staged at Artscape, where Mosaval made history as the first black dancer to perform there. Picture: SUPPLIED
Body of work: Grant van Ster (centre) and dancers from Cape Town City Ballet rehearse The Johaar Mosaval Journey, staged at Artscape, where Mosaval made history as the first black dancer to perform there. Picture: SUPPLIED

"He was the first performer of colour to appear on South African television. And Dr Christiaan Barnard once told Johaar that seeing him dance was the reason he had decided to become a doctor."

Meeting Mosaval while putting the production together had been a profound experience for Van Ster. "He is such an amazing guy, and it is incredible to watch his brain at work."

"He radiates life, excitement and happiness. I love how he’s constantly smiling."

For Van Ster, the challenge was to find a balance between putting on a showcase that celebrated Mosaval as a one-of-a-kind artist, while acknowledging all the adversities he had to overcome during his life.

"I wanted to transform everything he told me into a production that both stayed true to his life, but also one that carried my creative signature. I wanted to keep everything as authentic as possible," he said.

In the end, what the audience saw on stage was a company paying tribute to a man who achieved a tremendous number of accolades. "We want to acknowledge, and inform people about, who this man was. He was so true to what he wanted to do and pursued it to the fullest," Van Ster said.

In addition to the performances by Cape Town City Ballet there were also guest appearances by Luke de Kock, Shaun Oelf and Conway October. The show was complemented by digital projections and live narration by Daniel Richards (Pay Back the Curry).

"I worked closely with designer Mervyn Williams on the costumes and overall aesthetic," said Van Ster.

"Similar to Johaar’s life and travels, each section of the show has its own unique feel and identity. It’s all about highlighting the individual within the group."

Mosaval’s early life in District Six, for instance, required choreography and a set design that depicted the community.

"I’m incredibly excited about this segment and its vibrant, earthy colours. It’s the opening scene and sets the tone for the overall look of the production," said Van Ster.

"I also found a perfect piece of music for it by Abdullah Ibrahim. It gives me the exact feel I’m looking for. Hearing it, the audience will instantly know where they are."

Several pieces of music Mosaval danced to during his career were featured in the production, including Water from an Ancient Well by Ibrahim.

"Another example is The Square by Stanley Glasser. It was originally performed in 1962 by the Eoan Group, and was the first full-length indigenous jazz ballet by a local composer for a South African ballet group," he said.

"The song’s choreography deals with the struggle between good and evil, as well as gang life in District Six. The action takes place in the village square, hence its title."

Choreography from Mosaval’s most famous classical ballet roles made an appearance as well. Among them were those of the clown in Stravinsky’s Petrushka and the blue boy solo from Frederick Ashton’s Les Patineurs (The Skaters).

"It was very difficult to find actual footage of Johaar dancing, but eventually we did through the Royal Ballet’s archives.

"I’m very excited to say we showed these on the night," said Van Ster.

"Watching him dance, you can see the sheer passion and life in his movements. He comes across as really devoted to the work," he said.

"While the audience sees Johaar dancing on screen, they also see a solo happening on stage simultaneously."