Unravelling Mapungubwe’s Secrets by Weaving History and Haute Couture

The Gold Rhino of Mapungubwe Ballet is a feast of music, storytelling, dance, and African fashion by David Tlale – now on at The Baxter Theatre in Cape Town.

By Debbie Hathway
Mzansi Ballet’s Joshua Williams as The Crocodile and Mahlatse Sachane as Mokwena. Image:Hendrik Grobbelaar

Commissioned by The South African International Ballet Competition (SAIBC), The Gold Rhino of Mapungubwe Ballet is a visual extravaganza choreographed around the intriguing story of this historically significant animal. Featuring Mzansi Ballet and the National Ballet of China star Ruxin Bi in costumes by renowned fashion designer David Tlale, the production revolves around the discovery of an ancient artefact, a golden rhinoceros, in the ruins of the ancient kingdom of Mapungubwe in South Africa. This artefact symbolises the wealth and sophistication of the kingdom, which thrived between the 9th and 13th centuries. Its discovery sheds light on the rich history and culture of the region, revealing the advanced civilisation that once flourished there.

Ruxin Bi from The National Ballet of China as Van Graan. Image supplied

Choreographed by Angela Revie and with input from Mdu Nhlapo, the performance blends classical and afro-ballet with contemporary dance, complemented by poetic narration. The powerful score, curated by various artists, includes compositions by Grammy Award-winning flautist Wouter Kellerman, along with music by Mark Cheyne, SJ Khosa, Dr Cara Stacey, Matthijs van Dijk, and indigenous music specialist Mpho Molikeng.

A scene from the ballet. Image: Danie Coetzee

Although they have worked together for years, this is the most extensive production Tlale and Dirk Badenhorst, idea originator and director of Mzansi Ballet and founding CEO of the SAIBC, have collaborated on. What inspired his creations for this truly South African story? “The journey started about two years before we started making the garments. Researching the story about Mapungubwe, then going there and [hearing from] the real storytellers who know what transpired was beautiful… Getting to understand the core of the journey played a major role, and how I actually played it in my head, because we had to try to [link a story from almost 800 years ago] to current trends, while being futuristic and relevant, in how we capture the soul of this journey. I remember when they shared the first image of the golden rhino in a group, and they told us how it was kept; that was very moving,” says Tlale.

Omogolo Gaorekwe as The Healer and Thato Nkwe as The King. Image: Danie Coetzee

The cast includes characters like a healer, a crocodile, water carriers, basket weavers and the protagonist, Jerry van Graan, played by Bi. “When I was told who he is and what he did, we said let us not do the typical khaki. Let’s make [his costume] with a fresh twist. We brought in a camouflage print to make sure it’s still there, and people can relate that this is Van Graan even if they’ve never heard of him, and they can see the fashion aspect of it, the trendiness of it,” he says.

Joshua Williams as The Crocodile. Image: Hendrik Grobbelaar

What trends come through in the designs? Tlale’s timeless, elegant style shines through in a beautiful wrap skirt with a flounce of organdie at the bottom for the water carriers and a crocodile skin pattern that has influenced one of the new prints for his David Tlale collection. He borrowed a few elements from the xibelani skirt, the people from Mapungubwe, their lifestyles, colours and fabrics, telling a South African tale with a modern twist. Someone watching this production must be able to see themselves in the outfits.

Veronica Louw as The Bird. Image: Danie Coetzee

“Each print we developed and printed in-house to make sure the story is beautifully weaved from one scene to the other and there’s also a continuation of a thread – saying this is a collection, this is the narrative we’re trying to tell about this production.”

Book through Webtickets. This ballet is on at the Pam Golding Theatre at The Baxter until February 17, 2024.

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