A Conversation with Debbie Turner

In October 2018, Debbie Turner was appointed the Chief Executive Officer of Cape Town City Ballet. She founded the Cape Academy of Performing Arts in 1985 and went on to become the founding Artistic Director of the Cape Dance Company in 1995. Recently, she sat on the prestigious panel of judges for the inaugural 2018 season of M-Net’s Dancing With The Stars SAShe has won many awards for her choreography including the FNB Vita Award, and a Standard Bank Ovation Award at the National Arts Festival for Cape Dance Company’s Blue. In addition, the school received a Standard Bank Ovation Award at the National Arts Festival for Bittersweet in 2013, which resulted in the production of Between The Lines the following year on the Arena Programme and at the inaugural Cape Town Fringe FestivalDebbie is committed to restoring, revitalising and aligning South African dance with the 21st Century global trends of performance through sustainable, multi-pronged approach to performance excellence, diverse repertory relevant to current times, dance education, and professional development of dancers while preserving the traditions of classical ballet and academic dance in general.

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

I started dancing when I was three. I come from a family of musicians and artists and arty people and so it wasn’t really a conscious choice. It was something that just kind of morphed into my life. I can’t really imagine that I would have chosen a life without it. I went to university for the first six months after matric and absolutely hated it, probably because I was really tired. I was rehearsing till 10pm every night and getting up to go to the famous 8:10am lecture in the morning. After six months, I left. I put on a bit of a drama for my father and he just said, “You don’t have to go back.” I actually felt mature beyond my years in terms of the 17 and 18 year-olds who were there in first year. It was parties and drinking and it just wasn’t part of my life at all because dance really matures you at a very young age because of the responsibility that you carry. I suppose I couldn’t quite understand why people were not pitching at lectures, arriving at lectures drunk, that studenty kind of stuff that doesn’t appeal to me at all. But then I did go back to university at the age of 34 to do a BMus. That I did while I was running my business and my company prior to this appointment. A lot of people have said, “Well how did you manage that?” You manage because you want to. There was no sort of ‘aha-moment’ of, “I should go into dance.” It’s innate in me.

What was the decision around going back to study?

It was because it was offered. It was never offered as a degree course before. It was only ever a practical course with a couple of theoretical subjects that were very strongly dance aligned. When the degree course was offered, that brought to the floor what I really would have liked to do when I was 18 but it was never available.

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

What were your first few years like working as a professional dancer?

Well, first of all, we couldn’t exclusively work as professional dancers because you didn’t earn enough money. I taught, I ran a business. I opened my school when I was 21 and danced professionally until I was 33, mostly between 5pm and 10pm at night. I was also in the competitive Latin America dance scene at that same time, which at a point I had to stop because I was spread too thin. I come from an era of professional dance where you worked until the work was done and you didn’t dare ask what time rehearsal was going to finish. It was tough because I would be teaching body conditioning classes in the morning, your children would come out of school at 1:30pm/2pm and then, if I wasn’t rehearsing at night, I would work till 10pm. I opened my youth company in 1995 and that was the point at which I still performed professionally and ran the youth company for a couple of years and then I chose the wiser route which was to stick with something that could last till the rest of my life if I wanted it to. The youth company’s ages were between 13-21 and then they never left. They all sort of grew up and then I had to take the word ‘youth’ out of the title because it was almost misrepresentation. That was in 2003 and then it became a fully-fledged, project-based financed company, primarily by the door sales but also by some sponsors, investors and then some money from the government but nothing to write home about. They have no idea what dance costs. A big production at the opera house, if you take the salary bills into account, costs about R3 million. That has got to come from somewhere and primarily, it has to come from the door. We don’t have the kinds of funders in dance that people have in Europe and the trusts that give money on an annual basis internationally. I try to travel as much as I can to keep me clear about what the standard actually looks like and what it costs to their productions but then again they are earning so much more and they are earning foreign currency. Dance is in a state of transition. There are the traditionalists and there are the people who believe the tradition is truly only tradition and a little out of date. People are reimagining choreographies. I love a great Swan Lake but it needs to be great. If you see it and you’ve been fortunate enough to see it at really high levels, you don’t really want to see it at any other level. 

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

You were recently appointed as CEO of Cape Town City Ballet. How have your first few months been?

It’s been a wonderful challenge. Moving into premises that are not particularly ideal for dance, they are ideal from a square meterage point of view but there is a lot of work that needs to be done on the building. It’s obviously been a huge shift for the dancers. They’ve come through a really difficult time of having to leave UCT at a supposed short notice, which I think was very traumatic for everybody. They’ve been in this new space for just over two years now. I’ve been tasked with reinvigorating and realigning and pretty much re-everything. A strong focus is obviously on changing what the art looks like, certainly not losing the classical ballet element of it all but the diversity of what the repertory is, is really important and again, it needs to be globally aligned. I think South Africans are extremely hard-working people but the investment in the actual art is just not there. But I also believe that you need to take one step at a time. We are reintroducing George Balanchine’s work to the repertory. We are bringing back a production of Frank Staff’s Transfigured Night which went up pre-1950 almost, and then a more modern work called Enemy Behind the Gates which comes with me from my previous repertory but staged with between 50 and 60 people. The work is very militaristic and precise in its quality and it’s pretty hard-hitting. I think the program is a great mix.

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

This current season is quite innovative for Cape Town City Ballet because it’s mixing international and local aspects as well as classical and contemporary narratives too. It seems like you’ve hit the ground running in this position. How has your vision been received by the company?

I think there are many that are really excited about it. I think there are some that have their reservations about it and they are entitled to that. Any artistic space is something that is living and breathing. If you think of it as being like a language, we have words in the English dictionary today that weren’t there five years ago. It’s a living, breathing thing and creativity is something that I think is the heartbeat of any environment. Creativity, to a degree, thrives on nature. So often designers and people that create, go to nature to be inspired by that creativity and nature looks different all the time. A tree that is pruned every year doesn’t grow back the same way necessarily than it was. I’m absolutely committed to keeping my purest repertory in the Cape Town City Ballet stable but we have to add to that. Serenade was in the repertory in the ’80s. The more illustrious the choreographer, the more expensive it is to attain that choreographer’s work and to keep it. Serenade and Transfigured Night are reestablishing previously held repertory and it goes back years. It’s not new. Enemy Behind the Gates is almost 20 years old. It’s not particularly modern for the Northern Hemisphere. It’s just that we’ve been so isolated for so long because of the currency [and] because of the geographic isolation, so people don’t come here and people from there don’t come here. It’s a generalisation. Many people do go there but in comparison to the number of people that don’t, it’s a very small percentage. The other thing we don’t have is the money to take real risks. This is not risk for me at all. Some people would see it as such. It’s absolutely not. Serenade, has had a long life and it continues to be staged in 10 or 12 companies around the world. I think what it does do, because Amaranth will open with Serenade, it very firmly reestablishes classicism and the purity of that classicism. The stager, Rebecca Metzger, comes from Atlanta and the company is going to be working incredibly hard. At the moment, the Cape Town City Ballet is 100% South African in terms of its artists and even in its management. I definitely sense that there is more than a bit of excitement around this new energy. I’m looking forward to the opening night but it has to be of the highest level. That is what we are working towards. It’s really exciting with the guest artists we have coming, but equally, the reason to bring guest artists is that it’s inspiring for everybody. It’s inspiring for the dancers to see what is achievable. It’s inspiring to have new energy in the space. It’s inspiring for the other choreographers that are going to be here at the same time. The fact that the management of these companies have very graciously permitted them to come and work for us, obviously with thanks to the companies that they come from, but there is a lot of excitement around the guest artists that are coming and they are all such lovely people. There is a humility and a dignity that I think is a place you get to when you know the art can humble you in five seconds. It’s always about the work and about the art form. It’s never about you. The reality of dance or of performing arts, as we all know, is that if you happen to come down with food poisoning or stub your toe and sprain it, it means that in Act 2, there will be somebody in your place. It’s about that corny but long-standing expression of the show must go on. You are dancing a role that in some cases, thousands of people have danced. It’s not about it being your role. It’s about you having the privilege of dancing a role that hundreds of other people have danced before that. You have to keep yourself humble about that because some great people have danced the roles that are coming up. It’s about doing the role justice.

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

What would you like your legacy with Cape Town City Ballet to be?

I step into very big shoes. Much like the journalist who said when Judith Jamison stepped into Alvin Ailey’s shoes, “She steps into very big shoes while she has her own shoes.” I’m very cognizant of what I step into and I think every new person can bring renewed energy and a renewed artistic vision. When I do step away one day in the future, I hope that I leave behind a body of work that I’ve managed to get into the repertory that can hopefully stay and also to have commissioned some brand new work that was created on the Cape Town City Ballet so that they are not only working with inherited or purchased works but works that were created on them. The positive side of buying in choreography that is tried and tested is the fact that it’s exactly that. You know that if it’s done well, you have a good chance of it being received really well because there is a precedence. I think your ego can get the better of you and that is something that I try to keep in check as much as I can. One needs to lead with confidence and you can’t be afraid to make mistakes, just not make too many. You don’t know it’s a mistake until it didn’t work. You know what you think and what you feel about something but you don’t know how your audience and your critics are going to feel about something. What do I want to leave behind? I suppose I’d like the company to be a bit bigger so that there is not so much pressure on dancers so that you have a bit of leeway. If somebody does stub their toe and can’t get a pointe shoe on, it can’t be that the work falls apart. The legacy… I think of the choreography, the fan of the choreography with all these different blades of style.

Because you’ve existed in the dance world from the time you were three, how do you ensure that you still stay inspired?

Because I step into the studio almost every day. That is the one thing that I’m not prepared to step away from [which] is the very thing that has kept me current. Partly the travel and also being in the studio on an almost daily basis. I’m in the studio probably four days a week rehearsing and coaching. It keeps me alive to the temperature of the water of the studio. The administrative capacity came out of absolute necessity rather than out of desire. That was because for 35 years I’ve run my own business and ran my own independent company. The buck stopped with me every single hour of every single day. You are immediately responsible for every single thing. I have a small staff in my school and in the company that is now dormant because so many of them have been employed at Cape Town City Ballet through an audition process and that audition process which happens twice a year will continue to happen for a significant period of time. It’s important that we service the city that we get some funding from, that we service the province in which we exist and then the country in which we exist. In that order. To service the dance community so that we are communicating expertise, giving them moral support, giving them academic support, training support and inviting them into the space. It’s not just about the performances on the stage. There is a huge demand placed on us to service the community. Servicing the immediate community is what’s really important. It needs to be a generous space and performing arts by its very nature is giving. You are giving something of yourself to your audience. It’s a two-way street. You have to give in order to receive. That’s what’s also very important to me. It’s not about favouring any one part of the community but really being open and generous with everybody that wants to be a part of dance. Every child that starts ballet is invariably not going to be in a ballet company. They just aren’t. But they are your future audience members, your future costume designers. There are so many more jobs in dance and the performing arts off the stage than what there are on the stage. You can spend an entire lifetime in your chosen performing art or in a mixture of them until the day you die if you do it right. I didn’t have any great plan. It was just a case of, “What do I have to do today? What would I like to achieve in the next month or the next three months?” You are guided by gut instinct. None of this was ever planned. Really and truly.

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

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

She is no longer with us but Dulcie Howes. I remember her very clearly from when I was young. She was the grand dame of classical ballet in South Africa. She was also incredibly open-minded in terms of the repertory that she had and what she did and how she was presenting work on the stage with a completely multi-cultural cast during Apartheid. I have great admiration for her. Someone like Janet Lindup. She has this incredible big match temperament that I so admired as a younger dancer. At 18, she did Odette/Odile in Swan Lake and her father had died 10 days before that and she delivered this unbelievable performance. The tenacity was remarkable and continues to be remarkable. One of my teachers and then after that director, Dame Mavis Becker, who was also an incredibly strong woman who just took control of a Spanish dance company that brought in artists from all over the world. That’s where it was such a norm for me because I benefitted from that, thinking that it was the norm when in actual fact it wasn’t. Dame Mavis BeckerDulcie Howes and Janet Lindup for very different reasons that impacted me profoundly at different times, all contributed to what I admire.


Amaranth will run at the Artscape Opera House from June 22nd until July 7th 2019. For tickets, click here.

You can follow Debbie on Instagram or Twitter.

Special thanks to Christine Skinner and Hannah Baker

All photos were taken at the Montebello Design Center on May 7th 2019.

Sarafina Magazine maintains copyright over all images. For usage or inquiries, please contact us.

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