A Conversation with Mariëtte Opperman

Mariëtte Opperman began dancing at the age of seven. She trained under Paula Olivier and later did an intensive vocational study with Martin Schönberg. She started her professional career in 2008 at the South African Ballet Theatre. She joined Cape Town City Ballet in 2010, where she is currently a senior soloist. Mariëtte also performed professionally in Stockholm, Sweden for a year. Her most memorable roles to date include the Black Swan in Swan Lake, Diane in Diane and Acteon, Kitri in Don Quixote, Sugar Plum in The Nutcracker, Firebird in Firebird, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Giselle in Giselle. She is currently gearing up to take on the titular role in Veronica Paeper’s production of Cinderella for Cape Town City Ballet.

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

I grew up on a farm, so when we moved to Pretoria, my mom worked at a pre-primary school and there was a teacher who gave ballet classes in the school hall. My mom thought I was just playing around in the aftercare and I went to the hall and started dancing with them. I basically just played with them by dancing with them and then, two months later, the teacher went to my mom and she was like, “Sorry but when are you going to pay me?” And my mom was like, “Who are you?” She told her that I had been dancing with them for two months and then my mom realised that I wanted to dance but for me it was play. Only later was it a proper passion for me and I went to a proper school and later took it as a subject in high school and did it seriously. 

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Photo credit: Chanel Katz

Do you remember the moment when you decided that you were going to pursue it professionally?

Yes. We went to a production at the State Theatre in Pretoria. It was Swan Lake and I was seven years old and I was with my mom and my grandmother and we watched the performance and afterwards I said, “One day, I’m going to be the head girl of a ballet,” meaning the principal dancer. I think it was that moment, the orchestra and all the dancers in tutus and tiaras and it just inspired me so much and I decided that is what I wanted to become one day. From then, I went to every single performance of South Africa Ballet Theatre and Burnise Silvius inspired me a lot. I always looked up to her and that’s how it basically started. 

You are currently in the midst of rehearsing for Cinderella. How are things going?

I’m really enjoying this process because we are working with Veronica Paeper, the choreographer, directly. She knows exactly what she wants. There is a lot of detail that she gives us which I feel very privileged to get straight from her. It’s really nice preparing for this ballet. There is so much to think of. We have so many props, which I’m not always used to, and you must just remember everything. If you forget, the story is not going to make sense. That’s a big challenge to remember all of that but I’m really enjoying it. I’m dancing with Conrad Nusser for the first time which is really nice. He is very strong and much taller than me so if he lifts me or throws me in the air, it feels like I am going through the ceiling, which I love. I’m an adrenaline junkie. I’m really enjoying this process and the journey has been so nice. I’m excited to perform this. 

What are you most looking forward to in regards to performing this role?

I think the character is completely different from what I’ve been doing now with Giselle that we’ve just done and Romeo and Juliet. To portray this character is completely different, which I like, and then to transform from the innocent kitchen girl going to the ball in a beautiful tutu and ending up marrying the prince, it’s just a very nice change. You have to show the difference in the kitchen scenes to going to the actual ball. 

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Photo credit: Chanel Katz

There are numerous ballets where the roles are extremely demanding and dancers alternate those roles. What is the experience like of alternating a role with another dancer? 

I think it’s nice. If I can use Laura [Bösenberg] as an example, she has done Cinderella quite a few times, where this is my first time doing it. This will be my debut so it’s very nice to chat to her and ask her some advice because she has done it before. She has the experience of it so to talk to her, she can almost guide me and say, “This is what works for me. The first time I did it, I had to think about portraying the role like this.” Or, “Remember the props.” She can tell me exactly what her tricks are. It’s nice to discuss the character with someone and come up with ideas. 

I’d love to hear more about the process of working with Veronica Paeper on this production.

I’ve done her version of Cinderella twice before this. I didn’t play Cinderella and she didn’t teach us directly so I think a lot of information slips away until she arrives at the studio and she can tell you first hand, “I don’t want your arm to be like this, I want it to be like that.” She is very specific. There is a lot of detail that I think would go missing if she wasn’t there and because it’s her ballet, her baby, she knows exactly what she wants. She would really explain what she wants you to portray in the character and what you have to think. I think I would have done it completely differently if she didn’t give me all this information, but having all this information makes it so much more clear. I know exactly what to think or what to feel which helps a lot because it’s all about creating this character and for someone who created this ballet, to give you this information is amazing. 

How do you have to structure your life so you are able to maintain your performance and rehearsal schedule?

Usually our day starts at 10am but before I go to work, I will sometimes go to gym, do some cardio to keep fit [or] Pilates to keep the core strong. There are lots of other things that I do outside of ballet to keep the body strong and to prepare for the daily workout. 

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Photo credit: Chanel Katz

Out of all the roles that you’ve played, do you have a favourite?

This is so hard. Everyone always asks this and I feel like I have quite a few. The Black Swan is definitely one of them. I think because it’s so challenging. It’s really hard stamina wise. I’ve never cramped so hard in my life before and that was just as the Black Swan. Two of my favourite roles are Kitri in Don Quixote and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet but then I also love Giselle as well. It’s very hard. I have five favourite ballets. I’d love to do Carmen one day. I haven’t done it yet but is one that I would still like to do. But if I had to choose two it would be Kitri and Juliet. 

I was just about to ask if there were any that you haven’t done yet that you’d still like to do. 

I did an interview last year and they asked me if I had to choose five ballets, what my favourite is or what I’d like to do and I hadn’t done any of them yet. I said; the Black Swan in Swan Lake, Kitri in Don Quixote, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Giselle in Giselle and Carmen and it happened in that order. Hopefully the next one is Carmen. I really hope it is. 

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Photo credit: Chanel Katz

When you are part of a ballet company, do you still have to audition for roles or do they get assigned to you?

No. Every now and then, let’s say for Cinderella, there will be a fairy rehearsal and Veronica will come in and watch and all the girls need to stay and she will teach the solos and then she will see, “I like that one in that role.” Or, “She’s a good turner so she needs to do that solo.” I think for outside choreographers, they will come and watch classes and it’s almost like an audition. They see who they like or whose personality will suit what role but we have ranking within the company. I think that more or less you know your soloists will usually do the solos or the principal roles. Later this year, we’ll do Swingtime and Sean Bovim came in for a week just to watch class and rehearsals to get a feel for the dancers and that is basically the audition because it’s his ballet that we are doing in four months and he is sitting watching us. Obviously you have to show your best side and do what you can do and then I think he sees. So yes, we kind of do have auditions but not to get a job, more for roles.

Do you feel like there is an added pressure when you have an outside choreographer coming in to watch rehearsals?

Subconsciously I think so. I think a lot of people go, “Oh my gosh, they are coming to watch,” and they get stressed. I might say that I don’t feel stressed but I think subconsciously it’s part of the job. You always have to perform, you always have to be at your best. You never know who is watching. You always have to give your best.

What do you find to be the biggest misconception that people have about dancers?

That we don’t eat. We are normal people and we eat exactly the same as other people, or they think that you just eat salad but how can you have so much energy by just eating salad? Yes, salad is great but you need a nice big bowl of pasta. You need those carbs to have the energy and I think a lot of people don’t understand that. Sometimes, if I tell people that I have to go to the theatre at 3pm, they’ll say, “But your show is only at 8pm.” They don’t understand that there is so much happening before the actual show. You do a full on technical class before the show, you have to set your props, you have to do hair and makeup. There is much more going on behind the scenes than just the actual show.

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Photo credit: Chanel Katz

So many people aren’t lucky enough to have their passion turn into their full-time career. How do you keep your passion for dance alive while it essentially is also your job?

I think support from family and friends always helps and to have a balanced lifestyle. Even if it’s just on weekends, to go hike a mountain or go away to the ocean or in nature so that when you come back to work, you feel fresh and motivated and inspired. I think travelling helps a lot because you keep growing and as an artist, you always have to keep growing because whatever life experience you have, you’ll take that on to stage and people can see it. I feel like you can’t break someone’s heart if your heart has not been broken or if you have to be so happy onstage and you haven’t experienced that happiness, you are not going to convince the audience. I feel it’s all about life experience and having a balanced lifestyle to not just be locked up in the studio but to also experience life in order to take that onto stage. 

In the context of your career, what are you most proud of?

I’m quite proud of the whole journey that I’ve had. I started off being a corps de ballet member right at the back of the corps dreaming of being the lead in the ballet and then I left Cape Town City Ballet and I went to Sweden for a year and a half and I think when I came back, I just realised that this is 100% what I want to do. I got a lot of experience overseas but the passion just grew more. I am proud of everything that I’ve achieved and that I’m actually in a professional company. So many of my friends wanted to become professional ballet dancers and I think only two of us out of the 15 in my school actually ended up doing ballet. 

What did your time in Sweden teach you?

I feel like I grew a lot when I was there. I worked with a lot of different directors and choreographers which made me realise that there isn’t only one way, there are so many different ways. If I work with this person today, she is going to want me to put my head that way. If I work with someone else, they wont like that but they’ll like something else. There isn’t a right or a wrong, it depends who you work with. I feel like I grew a lot when I was there. It was an amazing experience. 

What advice would you have for young women who are thinking about entering into this industry?

Just to be very disciplined. It can get really hard and the thing is to just not give up but to push through the hard times. Your toes get sore, your body gets sore, sometimes it feels like you can’t get anything right and that you are not improving or moving forward but just keep going. Stay disciplined. Rock up for the class and all the rehearsals and just keep believing in yourself. 

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

Burnise Silvius was definitely the one who inspired me the most when I was a little girl and wanted to pursue this career. And Hanna Grobler, she does a lot of charity work. 


Cinderella will run at Artscape Opera House from October 5th until the 21st. For tickets, click here.

Special thanks to Allison Foat and Chanel Katz.

All photos were taken by Chanel Katz on September 25th 2018.

Sarafina Magazine and Chanel Katz maintain copyrights over all images. For usage or inquiries, please contact us.

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