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Boston Ballet: stumbling over a South African trip

Augustus Van Heerden, a principal dancer with the Boston Ballet Company, is a South African. Tall, muscular, mustachioed, he speaks thoughtfully, with deliberation, smiling often.

For the past few weeks, like many of his nonwhite countrymen, he's been carrying a gun.

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His, however, is a wooden musket -- a prop in the Boston Ballet's new full-length production of "Swan Lake," which opened Wednesday.

The guns of his countrymen back home are the real thing --years ago in the streets and the bushlands of Africa's richest country.

In the ballet's scenario, he aims his musket at white swans -- and is nearly deluded by a black one. His countrymen, in occasional real-life clashes, aim at white Afrikaners. He is committed to his art. They are dedicated to their revolution. It is a parallel of art and life so rich in ironic overtones that the agonizing decisions of the past two weeks almost escape notice.

Almost, but not quite. For the 18-year-old company has been so suddenly thrust into international politics, and so bluntly dragged into confrontation with forces outside its ken, that it has come of age with a swiftness that has left its management dazed.

It all began last fall, when the company's New York agent, Peter Klein, sent out a feeler. He had already lined up a London tour -- with Rudolf Nureyev as guest star -- for the summer. How about a swing through South Africa, he proposed, on the way? It had the right ingredients: local lad makes good, triumphant homecoming after nine years, a country hungry for culture.Johannesburg and Bloemfontein were interested.

Unfortunately for the unsuspecting company, the proposal had other ingredients as well -- unseen when, on Feb. 27, the board of trustees voted to pursue the possibility further. They had already consulted Mr. Van Heerden. He has family in South Africa, holds a South African passport, and supported the plan. "I felt strongly that we should go," he said initially in a prepared statement. "It will be an inspiration to my people that [a South African black] made it [in a major dance company]." His embassy was delighted: it looked like good press.

Eight days later, it was over. At an awkward press conference March 6, the proposed trip was canceled. The story had leaked two days earlier. Besieged by calls, swamped by attacks against the zigzag racial politics of Prime Minister P. W. Botha's National Party government, and pressured by the government's sworn enemies in the exiled African National Party (ANC), the company got a lesson in foreign affairs that shook it to the toes.

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After the press conference, an exhausted chairman of the board rehashed the week. Finally, pouring a long soft drink, sprawling on a chair in the whitewashed brick board room at the company's makeshift offices, Mary Ellen Cabot told me simply: "There's a lesson in this for everyone."

The lesson has three parts. It concerns a well-meaning board that simply lost touch with international events -- a problem, as we noted in this space last week, not new to Boston. It also concerns the challenge of trying to find the balance between art and politics. And it concerns the future of a fine young dancer caught on a tightrope.

First, the international part. Should the ballet have decided to go? The answers are as varied as the individuals who give them.

For some, the nature of the South African government is abhorrent. The country's 4 million whites hold dominion over its 18 million blacks -- a control enforced by sophisticated military and police forces, a white-run lawmaking system, and an entrenched bureaucracy. In response, the ANC --founded in 1912, banned in 1960, and now a militant organization with an estimated 4,000 guerrillas -- has called for total sanctions against the country by other nations.

That policy of wholesale boycott brought Themba Vilakazi, the local representative of the ANC, around to the Tremont Street offices of the Boston Ballet last Friday. His point was simple: The proposed visit by the company would be a propaganda coup for the South African government. It would be seen as support for their policies.

His view finds sympathetic echoes in many quarters. As recently as Feb. 18, Harvard University sold $50 million worth ofshares in Citicorp -- because its parent company, Citibank of New York, had participated in a loan to the South African government. Harvard since 1978 has had a policy prohibiting investment in businesses that support that government.

In nonfinancial quarters, too, the view finds favor. Whatever can be done to "hold their feet to the fire" and insist on a quick turnaround in human rights, proponents say, should be done. Ballet board members point out, by way of parallel, that the company's visit last summer to China did not imply support for the Chinese political system. But supporters of the sanctions reply that China does not pretend to be a Western nation based on Christian principles.

On the other hand, however, there are many who feel that the ballet should have made the trip. They assent that progress has been made in recent years by the current reformist government and observe that a country should be judged not by some ideal of human rights (which, they add, the United States itself cannot claim to embody) but by the velocity of its progress toward improvement. The company, they note, laid down several conditions -- including the right to perform before unsegregated audiences and stay in unsegregated accomodations -- which met with no objections from South African government officials.

Others, fearing alternatives, point to the acknowledged support of the ANC by Moscow -- a line pushed hard by the South African government.They argue that the only "propaganda coup" was delivered not to a government undoing its past but to committed Communists who now may be seen to wield considerable clout even in Boston and who hope someday to deliver South Africa to the Soviets.

Still others, particularly in the Reagan administration, see South African relations as strategic. The West, they say, desperately needs that country's abundant mineral wealth. They point out that a chromium embargo, for example, would have a more devastating effect on the West's military capability than an OPEC oil embargo.

Still other turn the boycott issue on its head. They feel that boycotts invariably harm countries that refuse to trade, while strengthening the resolve and ingenuity of those being cold-shouldered. They point, for example, to the thriving armament industry in South Africa -- built out of desperation when Western supplies dwindled.

Finally, there are those who argue that boycotts hurt not governments but people. In their view, to insist that Ford close its auto manufacturing facilities in South Africa (as the ANC demands) would simply be to throw a lot of blacks out of work. And to isolate the country from cultural exchanges would be to cut off the very flow of ideas and images that could move the hearts of oppressors toward reform.

Oddly enough, none of these arguments explain the problems facing the company. They weren't asking which side they should choose. They didn't yet know there were sides. They were entangled in a second and far broader question: Can art and politics be seperated?

It is one of the world's perennially intractible puzzles, one that few people really want to think about. Artists often find it easier to answer "Yes" than to face the unpleasant possibility that (for example) funding from the National Endowment for the Arts might mold their art toward goals deemed useful by social planners. And politicians, tending to look at behavior through the lens of legislative and administrative control, would like to answer "No" and take charge. Even the poets are split. Some, with Shelley, hold that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Others, with Auden, confess that, in the larger realm of human action, "Poetry makes nothing happen."

The confusion at the Boston Ballet has its roots in this debate. Until last week, the board tended to shelter behind such explanations as, "We simply wanted to make an artistic statement." That's fine -- in Boston. But the company is growing up, reaching out, looking abroad. Part of the reason for going to South Africa would admittedly have been to let an artistic statement have an impact on a political situation.

That demands diplomatic sophistication. The company may not need a foreign policy adviser. But it needs to be alert. All week the signs were there: a United Nations vote to deny South Africa its General Assembly seat March 2, back to back with some pretty serious remarks by President Reagan March 3 about the need to be "helpful" toward the South African government's "sincere and honest efforts" at reform. It needed to read them. It also needs a willingness to touch base, early, with such groups as the State Department's International Communications Agency -- which, foreseeing pitfalls, would have discouraged the trip from the outset.

And what, finally, of Mr. Van Heerden? We sat for half an hour in the front row of the empty Metropolitan Center during a break in rehearsals Tuesday. His life has changed.He now has a personal security guard. His conversation is punctuated with silences. He worries about offending either the South African government (which could take away his passport) or the black activist who now hover nearby.

In a quiet way, however, his insight has matured. "I still maintain that it [the trip] was a good thing to begin with," he said. "But it became clear there was more to it than we thought. I'm not sure that what we set out to do could be accomplished by our going now." And he adds, with some poignancy, "I would always feel that I'd want to dance in South Africa."

Then, glancing at the bare stage, he concluded with a statement that should be framed for the company's boardroom wall.

"I'm not a political person," he said simply, "But I t hink we must be aware and know what's going on."

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