A Conversation with Esther Nasser

Less than a year ago, Esther Nasser was named CEO of Joburg Ballet. As a choreographer, Nasser has created an extensive repertoire of new works to both commissioned and existing music and soundtracks, winning several awards for choreography. Nasser became involved in transformation in dance and theatre before South Africa achieved democracy in 1994 and remains actively involved in the process. She has established community and outreach projects, winning the Gauteng Achievement Community/Outreach Award in 1999. Nasser has also taught and lectured at leading SA universities and technikons, and has choreographed and directed extensively for television.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

I don’t think I was inspired to pursue a career in the arts, I think it was something that I was born into really. My mother was a dancer, my father came from a very musical family, so yes, I was taken to ballet at the age of four like everybody was in my day and that is where it started. I kind of had a love/hate relationship with dance but it always seemed to find me again. Whenever I’ve tried to move away or walk away from it, it finds me for some strange reason. Being in this position, as CEO of Joburg Ballet now, and having been appointed to the position in August, was like coming full circle, finishing off where I started years ago with intermittent breaks obviously. 

I was wondering if you could talk about your transition from being a dancer to the position you currently hold?

I discovered contemporary dance at a very late stage of my life and I fell in love with it completely because of the freedom of the movement and the scope of what contemporary dance could offer you. My passion, I’d say, are the classics. [They] always have been. There is nothing like a beautiful, classical ballet. I broke away from dance completely to go and study drama for three years. I then entered the ballet world as assistant to the administrative head and then went overseas on a bursary to study dance and drama. I came back and then my career as a choreographer and teacher started. I started my own company and was then appointed the first dance mistress and a year later, artistic director to the first ever professional contemporary dance company which PACT started in 1989. From there, was artistic director for PACT Dance Company,  The State Dance Company closed down the theatres after a while. We were very successful with The State Theatre Dance Company. We toured extensively. I choreographed a lot and then I went into the freelance world once they closed the theatres and closed all the companies. I then tried to start little companies again like Jozi Dance Company, then I took over Tshwane Dance Theatre and then just became too battered and bruised trying to keep the funding. If it is not there, then you are hitting your head against the wall and it hits all kinds of over problems and complications for you in that situation. Then I became a practice manager to a vascular surgeon. I just left completely for two and a half years and was asked to possibly take on this job and I actually refused it three times and eventually I said, “Well if the universe is pursuing me, I better listen to it.” I’m back where I started. It feels like I’ve come full circle. 

How have your first few months in this position been?

I hit the ground running when I arrived. It’s been challenging. The administration was a bit of a problem here. Just generally sorting out the administration of the company [and] trying to find a better structure for the company going forward from where it is at the moment. We obviously need to grow it. We obviously need to find more funding. All of that has been within my daily job and work. I’ve had to meet with a lot of sponsors and kind of just convince them to come onboard again and of course we are very blessed with the grant we get from the city of Johannesburg. 

What do you feel is the current state of dance in this country right now? 

Ten years ago, we had about ten different contemporary dance companies in Joburg alone. At present we don’t really have one other than Moving into Dance Mophatong and they are doing freelance corporate work to stay alive. The ballet was also kind of battling. It always been. But what I see now, is the audience is coming back to the ballet in droves which is very heartening. Also, I think because of our school programs and our satellite programs which we have streamlined and focused a lot more on, the audiences are slowly coming back and the demographic of the audience is also very interesting at the ballet these days which is very heartening. It means we are doing something right and we need to concentrate more on those schools to make sure that there is a future. As I keep saying to everybody, it is all very well to subsidise to train, to transform but if you do not have the role model at the end of the journey, what are you training these people for? People need to focus as much on the company as the training school otherwise what are we doing this for? Why are you doing this if you cannot have a company, if they cannot have a profession at the end of the day which they can be proud of and be paid to do, why? I think people are slowly beginning to get that message that the one cant do without the other. 

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Production photo from Big City, Big Dreams. Photo credit: Lauge Sorensen
I think it’s worth noting that you mentioned the demographics among the audiences changing. When I spoke with Elizabeth Triegaardt, I referenced an article which had just come out that stated that ballet was too colonial. I wanted your take on how you feel about that statement. 

I think the perception is changing. Just like the perception is changing about a lot of things but particularly with the arts and with ballet, if you had to attend a meeting with our Joburg Ballet school parents, I think you’d fall on your back because most of those parents who are there are the fathers. I keep saying, “You don’t understand how unusual it is to have a father at a ballet meeting.” They are fully invested. You have these beautiful children and if you want a future for them, the parents are fully behind those children which is what is so amazing to see. The thing that they get from their children going to ballet is the discipline which is a major part that the children learn to have a sense of discipline and it is a very disciplined art form and I think it spills over into the other aspects of their lives. The world is ugly enough at the moment. “Why ballet?” I ask myself that a lot of the time. “Why ballet in this world that we are living in where the needs are so desperate?” Well if you don’t grow something pretty within the ugliness or something beautiful in the ugliness, those children have very little light to move towards. It gives them a different perspective of themselves. It grows a confidence. It teaches you to be brave. You think doing ballet and a pirouette is easy? It takes bravery to do those turns and those jumps. 

You mentioned people being able to have role models within the industry, to know what is achievable. 

Absolutely. We have a lot of hard work to do to get to that point. I keep telling people that you will only see the full transformational result in ten/twelve years. 

This is the second conversation that I’ve had where someone has mentioned that change will take years. Marlene le Roux mentioned that this transformation will probably not be achievable in her lifetime. 

It’s not achievable in my lifetime but I also think that our predecessors have wasted time. I think all the promises of what we were going to do didn’t come into fruition at all. I think people saw transformation as, if you kind of get dancers from overseas who are black and put them in the company….it’s a short term fix. Yes, the schools were put in place but they never went anywhere. That is why we need to find the link here between The National School of the Artswhich hopefully Joburg Ballet will have some input and become involved in as a company and a school. I think that is a very exciting way forward for us and from there, I think thats why in the next ten or twelve years, you will really see the progression of these children into the company. 

What is something within your career that you have found to be your biggest challenge?

Being patient because it feels like you have started over so many times. I feel like I am starting again because I’ve now implemented a whole new training method with Iain [Macdonald.] We have a route. We have a thread now from the young dancers through their lives. It does feel like I am starting again and you do just feel like you are starting again and again. I’m not a very patient person but I’ve learned to listen and I’ve learned not to be as volatile as I used to be. At my stage of life right now, I think I’m in the right place. 

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Big City, Big Dreams. Photo Credit: Lauge Sorenson
What is something you are most proud of?

I think maybe that I have grown, that I have developed into a kinder, generous, [more] patient person than I was and it is all thanks to the dance world and also the other lessons that one learns during life. That is really a difficult question but I would like to see where this ends when I finish and I hope it’s on a positive note. That would be a proud moment for me if I could help with the team here. Obviously it is not a one-woman show here. We all work together as a team. If we could build this company to where I’d like it to be in the next three to five years, that would be a proud moment to walk away from. 

In regards to that question, I always find that those who have a hard time answering it tend to have their ego’s completely in check. 

I can give you lots of proud moments in my life, too many but you get to a point in your life where you realize it is all made up. It is about learning the lesson, it is about wanting to learn the lesson and it’s about learning the lesson and moving forward with it. And it’s true. It’s what I keep saying to everybody here. The company is the ego. It is not about us. The company is what it is all about. We just surround the company and make sure that the company can be the best it can be. I learned a long time ago as an artistic director that you leave your ego outside the door otherwise what will happen is you will ruin it. You will damage it because your ego gets in the way of everything else and you don’t see things clearly. It is something you have to learn very quickly.

What is something you are most looking forward to personally or professionally?

I am looking forward to seeing this company develop and grow and become a bigger company. It already is a strong company, we just have to grow it. I want to see it as a more encompassing company and that was one of my mandates to make sure that the signs of transformation…[that] there are collaborations that happen which we are working on with other companies. I would like to do a little more personal traveling because it is late in my life. What I am looking forward towards is building the company with a team and everybody here and making sure we get the best for it. It has to be the jewel of the cultural crown of the city, so to speak, but it also needs to travel beyond the borders. 

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?

You are going to laugh at me but I don’t think it is as much arts as it is a Thuli Madonsela, a Cheryl Carolus, simply because of their fighting spiriting and their moving towards what is right. Sibongile Khumalo, the singer. Lira, I think she is absolutely gorgeous because she is just so humane and compassionate.I think they are all women who are great within their art and yet they are so humbling. It is the ego thing which attracts me to people. There are many people. Gcina Mhlophe, the storyteller. There is a young woman, Ntshieng Mokgoro of The Olive Tree Theatre in Alex. It is those women who need to battle to find a way forward and yet make it work. I find that very inspiring and encouraging. 


Joburg Ballet will collaborate with two other leading South African dance companies – Moving Into Dance Mophatong and Vuyani Dance Theatre – on a major new production opening on Friday 28 July 2017 when Big City, Big Dreams has its world premiere at Joburg Theatre. For tickets, click here.

Special thanks to Esther Nasser, Fiona Walsh and Hannah Baker.

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