Adele Blank is a choreographer, dance instructor and Director of Free Flight Dance Company, which she formed in 1987. She has trained, performed, choreographed and taught extensively in classical ballet and contemporary dance both locally and abroad. Since the beginning of the millennium, Adele’s artistic reach has extended far beyond the realm of dance. She has been responsible for numerous local and international TV adverts, movies, operas, fundraisers and a host of industrial theatre productions. Whilst coaching and teaching, she has created for many companies and is very involved in community and outreach programmes. Adele is a recipient of the Arts & Culture Trust Lifetime Achievement Award for Dance. We sat down to chat with her about devoting her life to dance and directing her latest project, Blue Violin, which will be performed at Artscape for a limited run.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
Well, that’s a good question because I always danced. I only became sort of relevant in terms of what I was capable of doing when I was only about 14 or 15 because, before that, I was nothing. I was in a ballet company and then I got married. I loved it, I was very dedicated to it but had you said to me, “You are going to be a choreographer or have a dance company,” I would have said, “Are you mad? Where did you get that from?” It wasn’t planned. I had hurt my back in Matric and I was going to maybe do Occupational Therapy and then I didn’t do that. My maths wasn’t great. Then I started and it just snowballed but my breakthrough to contemporary dance was [when] I was teaching Cecchetti for Sheila Wardski, who was one of the first people to bring Graham technique to South Africa, and she said to me one day, “Come and watch a dance movie.” I said, “What is it?” She said it’s “modern” dance and its Alvin Ailey. That was my revelation. I saw Revelations and then she started training me in Graham technique for a year on the floor for three hours every day. It just sort of happened and that’s it but now, in my old age, I am inspired by the youth and what they are capable of doing. I said to the dancers at Tercia’s place this morning, “Look at how blessed I am.” I get emotional with it and I start crying because I am. I look at myself and I think, “How did this happen?” You think, “How can you still have such fabulous people around you?” And they give. There is just this connectivity. It’s an amazing synergy that happens, I suppose with all the arts. That’s all I can tell you and it still keeps me going. I always tell people, “Thank god I’ve got this” because it’s my breath. When I see people who I haven’t seen in a long time, they go, “Are you still…?” And I say, “Excuse me, are you still breathing?”
You were involved with PACT at the beginning of your career. What was the advantage of having that resource so early on in your career?
We had that resource advantage a lot earlier because we learned with Faith de Villiers and we used to learn all the classics and we used to travel all over. Denise Schultz was also one of our teachers. They gave us those gifts. I don’t care what anyone says and I think that contemporary dance or any dance is brilliant when it’s done well but the classical training definitely gives people an edge and it’s not even a cutting edge thing, it’s a beauty, a line, a finish, a polish. It’s just a different look. I saw a video of Jennifer Lopez auditioning four different groups of male dancers for a music video. You watch the first group, amazing. The next group, hip hop, equally amazing. Then a Spanish something, all brilliant and then there were the ballet boys and you think, “Oh god, what’s this going to be like?” They totally destroyed everyone else. They were unbelievable. Why? Line, alignment, articulation, not only of their body but their feet, their eyes, everything. They got the job. That’s a perfect example because all the dancers are amazing. The kids and their energy and everything they are creating is just brilliant. Ballet just does it. For me, it just does it.
What was it that attracted you to Blue Violin?
I’ve known Tercia [Amsterdam] for many years and she is the most amazing dancer and a very special woman. She is really a beautiful soul and she’s helped me in terms of things where I’ve gone and I’ve discussed them with her, sort of quite esoteric stuff and she’s very down to earth about it and she’s a very fine choreographer and teacher. She danced for me when I did a couple of things. I did Mad Dogs at Cape Town City Ballet and Free Flight. She was part of that. She always used to come to classes and in November 2016, we did a thing called I Wish and I called her immediately to take part in. Her little girl kept saying, “Mommy, I wish I would have come out of your stomach sooner so I could have seen you dancing.” She told me the story so I said, “Tercia, let’s make it happen.” We put the show together and she moved still so magnificently. When she called me [for Blue Violin] and said, “Adel, please can I ask you?” I said, “Of course I’ll help you but you are such a gorgeous dancer. You should perform as well.” She is really special and if I can, I help. That’s why I’m doing it. This morning I really got this blessing with these dancers. So stunning. What more can I say? That’s my take on Tercia. She’s lovely and I’d help her at the drop of a hat.
What has the process been like?
Tercia is very perceptive of feelings and relating dynamics and things with dancers. She has just got a good eye for everything and she’s really got a nice vocabulary of contemporary dancing. She has also done ballet. She got this lot of people and that wasn’t easy because it’s a commitment and she’s worked with them and I’ve watched what’s been going on. I’ve advised her in terms of set and there are still things that need to be done but she’s got a great group of people who are working on it. Her choice of music is beautiful. I just want it to work so badly because she’s got a voice that just needs to be heard. She got the dancers together, she’s been working with them. I’ve been and I’ve given them class and I’ve looked and said what I think and from now on is the crunch time because I’m working more and more, not that I’m the boss, but I say, “I think this. Take it or leave it. It’s your voice.” I can say, “I think,” whether you agree or disagree is your choice. I think she’s brave. I think she’s very clever. She’s taking top dancers who are all choreographers in their own right and that’s a bit daunting. It’s all good.
As someone who also has that dance and choreographic background, how do you approach this, as a director speaking to a choreographer, in a way without stepping on any toes?
I would never stand on her toes. You want to encourage. That’s why I’ll say, “I think this.” I thought she was just going to say just come in and have a look. When she said direct, I said, “Tercia, no.” I’ve done my own stuff but I’ve never been asked to come in and direct somebody else’s but you see? You are never too old to learn. Kristin [Wilson] is choreographing a beautiful duet. She is performing in Blue Violin and she’s in my one. Rob Mills is coming from Joburg to do the visual stuff. He is brilliant.
What has it been like to transition from dancer to choreographer to now director?
I didn’t transition from anything, it just happened. Its been the most exciting journey if you think about it and, as I say, not planned. Maybe that is the whole thing because I know a lot of dancers say, “I want to do this…” I can’t say that. It was a process that just happened. It’s not that I knew it was going to happen because I think when you choreograph from the get-go, you are directing. No question, you are directing movement. I’ve done a lot of commercials and I’ve done a lot of musicals and pantomimes with Janice Honeyman, so you learn. Life is a learning process and the day you stop learning, that’s it. Close up.
You also founded Free Flight Dance. How did that come about?
Well, there was Performing Arts Workshop. Somebody asked me to come in and be head of Dance and we started this whole fame school in Hilbrow in Joburg and it was amazing. The same as what they’ve got at LAMTA, where I’ve been teaching as well by the way. We did it and we were there for three years. We had a wonderful board and these kids were unbelievable and a lot of them came on to be great entertainers. We built huge productions and we toured with it and then the money ran out. I was left with a group of fantastic dancers who were trained classically, contemporary, whatever and the one guy I’m very proud of. His name is Gerald van Vuuren who came from the streets of Eldorado Park barefoot to an audition when he was 17 or 18 years old. Six weeks later, I had him on the stage. Today, he is 52, the man is one of the top choreographers for the cruise liners. He owns three apartments, a beautiful sports car. That to me is such payback, not that I expected it. There are a lot of them that have done that. Anyway, I had all these dancers and Sylvia Glasser was moving into dance and she told me she was doing a show and wouldn’t I like to do a piece? I said absolutely and I created a piece called Free Flight, Free To Be. That was the beginning of it. I always had a passion for birds and things that could fly and that’s how it started. It just sort of grew. We were invited overseas. We toured Germany five times. We went to Switzerland, then we went to this and we went to that. It just grew and grew. We did a lot of corporate. A lot because the dancer’s discipline was something else. They found a way. I did big musicals and they were all involved. They did a lot of things and learning on the TV commercials and TV productions. The funny thing is, only after I had my second child did I really start performing a lot. Then I started travelling abroad and coming back and pushing it into whatever I did. Everyone says, “What do you teach?” I say, “Dance.” Because it’s everything. I like that a lot about what’s happening. The dancers are singing, dancing and acting. That’s good because that’s what it’s all about. A lot of good dancers are going into the musicals because they are demanding a lot more standard. It’s no longer just step-touch.
In the context of your career, what is something you are most proud of?
Maybe I am proud of the fact that I’ve had such a blessing that at nearly 77, I’m still doing it and I’m working with amazing young people and that I also have a daughter who is a brilliant choreographer. She always says she learned it all from me but actually, she has her own way. There are many treasures. I can’t name them, there have been so many. It’s been a very full, rich, exciting career and if you had said to me, “You are going to have a career,” I would have laughed at you.
What have you found to be the biggest challenge?
One of the challenges is financial because I think I got funding from the National Arts Council twice in my whole career and Free Flight was started in 1987. We got one for Mad Dogs and we got one for a piece at the National Gallery. I did 100 Years of South African art from Pierneef to Gugulective. I took seven dancers on a journey with the audience through 14 different works. I went and chose 14 things that I thought would work and that’s how we did it. It was so great. Those dancers were so focused because there was audience all over the show but it was really unusual. I’ve done a few of those. I’m hoping to do another one maybe. It’s beautiful but then I got funding for it so I could do it. More challenges were wanting so for the kids to just be able to just come and do it and the traumas of getting there and getting back and many times having to take them and fetch them. Another highlight, this is a real good one, I was doing something at the Space Frame theatre. I was doing a piece called Oil which was all about the oil spill in Iraq and my son and his friends were dripping black oil paint onto the scene. All the dancers, their plush costumes, carrying their little bundles and how everything got sucked up into this. In that programme, I wanted a gospel piece so I said to Amos [Ketlele], “I need a gospel choir.” I went on a June night to Soweto. This was in the early ’90s. I tell my husband I am going to see a show. I drive there. It’s a beautiful crisp, clear night and I find my way eventually and I see this glow. I opened the door and I hear this heavenly humming and I thought I had left the planet. I followed the sound and the light and it was just beautiful. I took that and I put it into the Space Frame theatre. After interval, we had a blackout and the audience was seated and then you just heard the humming. I got dancers who had tea light candles in their hands so they created all these shadows. They came onto the stage and the dancers danced through. I choreographed it so that the choir were actually moving on the stage with them with some of it. It was such a beautiful experience and for years afterwards, they kept phoning, “Please can’t we do more?” But you need money. That was a beautiful experience.
If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice at the beginning of your career, what would it be and why?
That’s a tough one. I’m not sure. That needs thought because I always believe there are lots of things that I regret but I shouldn’t. I regret the things I didn’t do and one of them was [that] I should have gone and tried to perform elsewhere. I got married very young and not that I’m not appreciative but I would have liked to maybe have done more. I don’t know if that’s true even because I look back and I think, “Maybe then the rest wouldn’t have happened? If you had gone to the Royal Ballet,” which I was supposed to go and do, “You might never have who knows?” I don’t want to have regrets about it.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I love Gcina Mhlophe. I think that one of the finest, most knowledgeable [women] that is now a teacher is Denise Schultz. My own daughter, Natalie Fisher, and I mean that sincerely. My other daughter, Lisa, is the most beautiful clothing designer and she’s artistic beyond. My youngest daughter, Genevieve Fisher Putter, is a journalist. I am in awe of my three daughters. I think that Mercedes Molina dance-wise was brilliant in the flamenco genre. I admire Janice Honeyman greatly. She is a brilliant director. I’ve learned a hell of a lot from her.
Special thanks to Berniece Friedmann.
All photos were taken on March 12th 2019 at Artscape.
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