Joburg Ballet’s prima ballerina Burnise Silvius has announced that she will be retiring from the stage at the end of the upcoming season of La Traviata – The Ballet at Joburg Theatre. Professionally, Burnise has been dancing for over twenty years and has performed all over the world playing some of ballet’s most iconic and challenging roles. We sat down with Burnise to chat about her retirement and reflect back on her incredible career.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I went to ballet when I was four. My mom took me and I don’t think I knew then that I was going to be a ballet dancer. I don’t think it works like that at that age but I think what played a crucial role was that my dad was in the PACT orchestra for 25 years. At half hour call you used to be able to buy tickets for R2 if the tickets weren’t sold out so I used to go to a season three or four times because I would just drag along to the theatre because I just loved the whole environment. Sometimes there weren’t tickets but I was there [and couldn’t] go home so I would sit in the orchestra pit and watch from there. I think it started there for me and it just became my dream to be on stage one day.
It’s quite full-circle that he played in that orchestra and you ended up dancing with that company.
This is an interesting time for us to have this interview because you are about to retire in April. When you started dancing, did you have any idea that this would span into such a long and extensive career?
I gave myself five years since I knew I wanted to be a principal dancer. I wanted to be Sleeping Beauty or Aurora, I wanted to do Odette/Odile, and I just thought that I [would] be happy if I [didn’t] become a principal dancer. So I gave myself in my mind that I wanted to be a principal within five years and if it got to five years and I was still in the corps de ballet, I would stop and I would pursue something else. I think, for me, it would have been soul-destroying to be in the corps de ballet, not taking anything away from the corps de ballet but that just wasn’t my dream. Luckily, I did work very hard, and I became a principal within five years. In my fifth year I was made a principal so I basically climbed the ranks every year which was amazing. Once you are hooked and you are in there it becomes your life.
What is your favourite role that you’ve played?
My favourite is Romeo and Juliet. I love playing Juliet. I think [for] most ballerinas that is their favourite role. I think it’s because of the story and the music and the choreography. It is all just so beautiful and so fulfilling to do that role. The first time I learned the role, I was heartbroken that I wasn’t allowed to do it. I remember talking to my artistic director, Dawn, then, because you see your name on the cast list and in those days your name is in brackets and if you are a bracket cast, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will do the role. I was heartbroken when she said to me, “No you aren’t doing it, you will do it next time around.” I couldn’t understand why and she just said “You have to experience more in your life. You are too young now. You have to experience more before you do this role. Your heart has to be broken before you can actually portray that role.” I am very thankful for her, for that because if I think back now, I don’t think I would have done it as well as when I actually finally got to do it.
Did you ever have a moment in your career when you came to a junction and thought “I don’t think this is for me anymore?”
Definitely. I came to that point when the company had closed down and I was going to guest with Hong Kong Ballet. I emailed them and said, “The company has closed down, I am supposed to come to you guys in a month, is it possible if I come earlier and work longer on the ballet I am supposed to do there?” They were very good about it and said, “Please come.” While I was there, they offered me a contract and I had gotten into contact with a few other companies but I hadn’t heard back from them. It was either go back to South Africa with no job or sign a contract while I was in Hong Kong. So I signed the contract and I stayed for almost a year, I didn’t quite finish my contract. For me, that was a point where I realised that ballet wasn’t quite everything. I was dancing but I wasn’t happy because I was so far away from home. I was in a country where their way of life was so foreign to me, I couldn’t quite grasp that, I couldn’t understand half the people in the company, it was so hard to make friends. Their whole culture is very different to ours, they don’t let people in. I just missed home and I stood at the barre one morning and decided that I was going home and if it meant that I wasn’t dancing anymore then so be it.
What advice would you give to your younger self at the beginning of your career?
Not to be so hard on yourself. We are so critical of ourselves and we pull ourselves to pieces every day. I just remember being at school and hating everything about me. I didn’t like the way I pointed my feet, I didn’t like my arabesque, I didn’t like my body. Everything was wrong in my eyes at that point. Now, because I teach younger girls as well, I watch them and I think they are all so beautiful and I know the struggle they go through because we all went through it. All I want to tell them is “Just enjoy that time,” and “You are so beautiful. Don’t be so critical of yourself. Your teacher will be critical of you, but don’t get into that ‘I hate everything about myself’ mode.” I think it’s even harder these days because there is so much social media out there and they see all these dancers and you tend to see just the amazing ones. The ones who have feet like this and have legs up here but you don’t always see the other 50 people in the company who don’t have feet like this but they are still ballet dancers, they still made it. I think that’s what I would tell myself. It all works out in the end. You don’t have to push so much and be so critical of yourselves. Love yourself and the imperfections as well.
With a month to go until you officially retire, how are you feeling?
I am scared. I try not to think too much but it’s hard because I think, “Open day is coming up and that’ll be my last open day. This’ll be my last photo shoot.” I try not to think of it like that because it puts too much pressure on me. I got an email from a friend of mine who was also a dancer, she stopped now, but she just said, “Don’t put so much pressure that the last show must be perfect. Nothing is ever perfect. Something is going to go wrong and just enjoy every minute.” I am trying to enjoy every minute that I have at work with my friends in studio. I am just going to try enjoy the whole process and the performances, just for me. Maybe a little bit selfishly more just for me than anyone else.
What are you most looking forward to for this next chapter in your life?
I am looking forward to going on holiday and not be like, “So the holiday is 3 weeks long. That means that I can eat what I want in the first week and don’t have to exercise and then I have to start watching what I eat and starting to take walks on the beach, maybe start getting into gym twice that week…” I am looking forward to, if I am on holiday then I can be on holiday and not have to think that the first day I’m back at work I’m back into a leotard. That whole body image is with you. I always thought that if you stopped dancing maybe it wouldn’t be with me anymore but it is. If I watch friends of mine who have stopped, it is still there. It doesn’t ever go away. Obviously, you don’t have to stand in tights and a leotard every day so it’s a little bit less. I am looking forward to just being off and not off thinking in the back of my mind that I must try to get back in shape for the next performance.
Going off of that, I asked two of the Cape Town City Ballet principal dancers about the misconceptions around ballet dancers and making sure that they maintain healthy body mentalities. I was wondering if you could talk about that because I know a lot of young women read this publication.
Definitely. It is a visual art form so you do have to look at yourself in the mirror and it must be a pleasing look to the eye. That is just the way it is. But with the amount of work we do, there is no way [that] you can’t eat. I know people think that ballet dancers just drink coffee and smoke. I think in the old days that’s what they did but these days people are so clued up on healthy food and how to eat things that are going to keep you strong. There is just so much information out there to help you have a beautiful body and be healthy. I think it is very different these days. It is not what it used to be. I would just say, “Love your bodies.” Now I realise that you have this one body for the rest of your life. Look after it. Eat healthy because you have to build your bone mass and when that time is up, you can’t build it anymore. If I see young dancers that get stress fractures I just think “There is something missing in what you are eating because you shouldn’t be getting stress fractures at this age.”
After watching a few minutes of rehearsals, and I know you were teaching but it was quite remarkable to watch you just simply sitting in the chair and mimicking all those movements with your body. Do you feel like once you are in retirement you will be dancing in your seat while you watch performances?
You do, to a certain degree. You watch and you can still feel what it felt like to do that step. I think that will be a little bit hard. Yesterday, my best friend was here, Anya, she has also retired and she was watching a rehearsal and she said that the steps just come flooding back. You sit there and the music starts and it all just comes flooding back. I definitely will be, I think.
What is something you are most proud of?
I think I am proud of the fact that even though I am the prima ballerina of the company, I am very approachable. I have never put myself on a pedestal and thought, “I am better than so and so.” I have never done that because it is such a hard career as it is. Here, I want to inspire people. I don’t want them to think that I am looking down on them. That is not who I am. I always say, “I am still the same insecure aspirant dancer that walked in on the first day.” Maybe not as insecure but you come in everyday and you have to prove yourself all over again. There is no, “Now you are a principal or a soloist and you can stop proving yourself.” You have to do that every day. I just try to be humble every day.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I must be honest, my peers inspire me every day in this environment.
Special thanks to Fiona Walsh and Hannah Baker.
All photos supplied by Joburg Ballet.
Featured image taken by: Lauge Sorensen