I first encountered the work of Ipeleng Merafe during this year’s Cape Town Fringe Festival where she was performing in #BalletMustFall, a satirical look into the world of ballet. A self-proclaimed modern-day gypsy, Ipeleng constantly finds herself on the move all in pursuit of her passion for dance. From South Africa to Paris to New York and more, Ipeleng is a supernova in the dance world who shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I started dancing when I was five years old. My mom was working full days and needed to keep my sister and I busy in the afternoon so she sent us to ballet. I just fell in love with it and I just carried on dancing.
Did you ever think when you were going to these classes at age five that it would turn into a career?
I pretty much knew that from when I started. It’s been undoubtedly what I would do. Only later on was I like “I need to process the fact that it will become my career,” but it always felt like something almost second nature. I don’t ever remember not feeling like a dancer or not knowing what I would do. I’ve always felt that I would be a dancer or a performer of sorts.
I think what makes you so unique is that you flow through most of the different styles of dance so effortlessly. Do you have a favourite style of dance?
I’ve been trained in most styles. I’ve done ballet the longest, 23 years, and it’s still the hardest for me though. I’ve done Modern, Contemporary, Tap, Spanish, Jazz, pretty much all of it, I’ve even dabbled in Hip-Hop. I would have to say modern contemporary (is my favourite.) It is also such a broad umbrella to put dance under. The contemporary neo-classical work that I am doing currently, as a contemporary dancer, is my favourite.
And now you are with Cape Dance Company…
I am working with Cape Dance Company at the moment. I’ve been part of Cape Dance Company since 2009 but it is not a full-time company. It is project based. It’s been a really good year for Cape Dance Company.
I read that you have studied abroad in various different places, why the decision to study internationally as opposed to here?
I studied here and internationally. I just wanted exposure to as many different people and cultures that influence dance. The best way is to actually just go and see what other people are doing and getting exposed to as much as you can to broaden your perspective on dance and what you can do. I learned a lot that way and I learned a lot about myself as an artist that way as well.
I first encountered you in #BalletMustFall at The Cape Town Fringe, which I loved.
We got such a good response. I was so nervous for the show. I haven’t spoken on stage since 2010 so I was really nervous. It was quite a tongue -in-cheek, punchy piece. It was nerve-racking.
How involved were you in workshopping that piece?
It was Jared (Musiker) the director, who created the whole piece but the speech that I give, the character that I played and the role that I played in the whole production was actually somebody else’s. She had moved to Tel Aviv and I replaced her. I stepped into the role and took that on, so I wasn’t there originally for the creation of the piece but it was really surprising how much of it I did relate to. It was easy for me to connect with because of that. There was so much of what she was saying that spoke to what I had experienced.
I think that show tried to give the audience a better understanding of the fact that there is a lot to that industry that people don’t know about or understand. What is one aspect that you wish people understood or knew more about?
It’s difficult. As a dancer, what we are is what people see. We are very good at pretending. The amount of work and hours that are put into it and how difficult it really is because we make it look easy and graceful and glam but it is really hard work. We really put a lot into it. If people knew that, maybe it would be a bit more of a respected art form.
I don’t know if you have read the article that was published recently that commented on ballet being too colonial. As a ballet dancer, how do you feel about that statement?
I think the colonial aspects of it have been carried on for too long. When I was 14 and I started dancing for a ballet company, there is a certain look in ballet, the pink tights and the pale look is the aesthetic of ballet, they tried to paint my skin with a shade called pancake to try and lighten me up for the stage. Stuff like that is not necessary. It is not where we are. We need to progress with life at the moment. It is quite colonial in that way. There is so much more to it and that is why I connect to it so much because it is deeper than what is sugar-coated. There is so much to the art form and what you can express and the stories you can tell and what it is capable of doing as an art form. There are aspects of it that are carried on for the same way as what it was.
What do you think can be done to proactively change that?
New stories. The classical ballets, how do I put this…Giselle doesn’t have to be white and pale. It is not necessary. I love the original ballets and how it’s staged, it is why I fell in love with it but she doesn’t have to be white or in pink tights. We need to change the mindset of it and stop boxing it in to what it is. Changing the stories and making it more relatable to what is happening now and the people that are now.
As an actor, and maybe I see things in a different way to what goes on in the dance world but race is not always essential to the storyline and if it is not essential then you should do things like colour-blind casting without hesitation.
That would be amazing but that is unfortunately not what it is yet. I hope the yet is a relevant word.
I think audiences just expect that ‘certain look’ because that’s all they been exposed to. But as soon as you have someone in a position of power who decides to make that change…
…To break barriers. If she is talented enough, put someone in that place. Why not? That will take time I guess but that would be amazing. My mission is to encourage more black dancers to push for that. Get into dance companies. You are so capable. Anything can happen. But it is not encouraged and there are very few role models for little black dancers. It’s like “I don’t fit in anywhere here.” I remember being in the ballet company when I was young and being like “but there is no one who looks like me. How does this work? Where do I fit in here?” It doesn’t work. That is something I am on a mission for. I don’t really know how to go about it as yet but it is something.
We need to have these conversations now.
It starts from young black girls. Push them. Encourage them. They just don’t have the role models and it is not encouraged. It’s just like “do ballet until you are bored with it and then leave.” Showing the possibility of how far you can go and what you are capable of doing and that it is possible to be black Giselle.
In the states, Misty Copeland is the big thing right now but how many other Misty Copeland’s came before her that were not given the platform?
That’s what I find so crazy. I absolutely love Misty, don’t get me wrong. She is one of my biggest role models and she is incredible but I do, I look at it, I did my research on black history in dance and it is crazy. I am like “are we just going to ignore the fact that Harlem Ballet existed?” I guess it is just the first black lead in American Ballet Theatre that made a big hype around it. As you were saying, its been happening a lot longer but it just wasn’t highlighted the way it is now.
It is important for any girl to see themselves represented on stage.
That is the thing that was missing so much in my life and that is why I connected so much to the character in #BalletMustFall, speaking about “how many black ballerinas do you know?” I actually honestly, in South African right now, professional ballerinas, I know of, two females that are actively dancing as professional dancers in South Africa which is crazy. I gained quite a complex for a while because it was like “oh she is good for a black dancer.” That’s the worst line I’ve ever heard. I’d rather not then. I’d rather not get the role just because I’m black. It’s been good so far though.
Do you have a favourite role that you have done so far?
They’ve all been so different. This year alone I’ve danced for three different dance companies and they all have different work. I worked quite a lot. It was a very good year. All so different but I loved all of them. I did Classical Ballets when I was younger with Cape Town City Ballet, with Joburg City Ballet. I took something from everything. It sounds cliché but I really did. Each piece requires something different. The way I look at them in different stages of my life has been interesting for me. Favourite role? It is difficult to say. One of the most amazing experiences that I have had dance-wise is on my international tours with Dada Masilo‘s Swan Lake. She took the classical Swan Lake and flipped it on its head. I was lucky enough to be cast as her understudy. We toured for three and a half years with Swan Lake internationally, mostly Europe. It still carries out on tour next year. She does really well and the ballet does really well. Dancing with an orchestra in The Netherlands, that was one of the big highlights. Dancing in the Champs Élysées in the lead of Swan Lake in Paris was amazing as well.
Leah from Facebook asked: What do you think about right before you dance?
Before a performance we have a warmup and a focus where I have time to think about myself physically and where I’m at. I center myself and my energy and my focus to the performance and what I have to connect with on stage for the performance. I think it has to do with what it is I am performing. Most of the time, I think about what it is I am trying to say, doing and trying to connect to that, my intention on stage, where I am physically, and trying to embody what I am trying to say. It happens in a ritualistic way almost. My focus time, my warmup, prepping, connecting with the music, if I have a partner, connecting with my partner. That’s a really hard question. I am going to think about it right before I dance.
Any dream roles?
Existing roles that I want to step into?
It could be or maybe it’s something that hasn’t been written yet.
I would love to perform a full-length work that is a solo piece. I’d love to work on that on my own and tell my own story. For so long now, I’ve been working so hard on telling a choreographer’s story. It is such a different process than creating your own story. I think that would be my next huge thing.
How do you have to structure your life so that you are able to maintain your professional career?
People ask me where I live. Nowhere. I don’t think I’ve lived in one town for longer than 3 months in the last 4 years. I’m a modern-day gypsy. I am always in an airport. You move around a lot. It’s quite on-the-move and high pace. I have to stay in training. I think that’s the hardest part of a professional career, is that I need a ballet class every single day. Training every day on top of performing on top of taking care of yourself and trying to balance rest at the same time and going home for family time. It is a lot of planning ahead, getting ready to up and go when it is time.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Dada Masilo is one of the most inspiring people that I’ve been working with for the past 4 years. Not necessarily in the arts but my mother. She is the reason I have as much tenacity as I do for what I do. She inspires me to keep at it. My sister as well. There are a lot of dancers in the industry that I work with that are my colleagues but I draw inspiration from everything. Mamela Nyamza is someone I looked up to when I was young. One of the most amazing artists is Alice Godfrey who is now dancing in The Nederlands Dans Theater. We trained together. She’s now gone overseas. More of our talent gone. Then there’s Lebo Mashile. She is a poet and she’s amazing. I would love if she was speaking her poetry for me to dance to that.
You can catch Ipeleng in Cape Dance Company’s production of SACREDSPACE beginning performances on December 3rd at The Artscape Theater. Tickets and more information can be found here. Next year Ipeleng joins the company of The Fugard Theater‘s Joburg transfer of their hit production of West Side Story. Tickets for West Side Story can be purchased here. Ipeleng can also be found on twitter.
Cover Photo Credit: Sfiso Sibanyoni