The Black Swan in Soweto (Pic: Ryan Matheson)
Over the last week passersby in Johannesburg and Pretoria have been shocked, amazed and possibly disturbed by the unlikely scenario of a muscular gay man performing ballet on the streets.
Former Mr Gay World Chris Olwage, who is South African-born but now lives in New Zealand, has donned his black tutu, pointe shoes and little else to bring the refined elegance of ballet to iconic urban landscapes in Soweto and to the Union Buildings.
His Black Swan project involves interacting with audiences who happen to be around or walking past, and taking photos and video of the unexpected and often incongruous public performances.
Olwage describes this as “performance art activism to encourage discourse, create awareness and challenge heteronormativity.”
He told Mambaonline that the project “forces people to look at something strange and alluring, it challenges their sense of normality and thus creates internal dialogue.”
Olwage’s previously spoken about his Cape Town childhood facing verbal and physical bullying and living with depression and thoughts of suicide. He moved to New Zealand with his parents in 2002, and at the age of 20 began to eat well, started going to gym and completely transformed his body.
“Being gay means we have to know ourselves, challenge identity, challenge belief and self perception, and eventually come to a place of acceptance and love. I feel I owe it to my fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community to put out there the seeds of change, change that comes from creating understanding from sharing our personal stories of strength and overcoming,” he said.
“My Black Swan is a representation of my personal journey; a sort of ugly duckling to swan transformation. The only difference is that I was not the swan everyone bargained for.”
Olwage, a dance and fitness instructor in Auckland, first wowed the public with his Black Swan when he appeared on New Zealand’s Got Talent in 2012. He’s since gone on to expand the project to street performances in cities around the world. “I was nearly arrested in Rome, last year,” he revealed with a laugh.
In South Africa he first presented the Black Swan at the 2014 Pink Loerie Festival in Knysna and more recently at the Mr Gay South Africa Finale at Emperors Palace. He plans to take it to Cape Town next week.
“So far the response has been amazing,” he said. “The people in Soweto were so lovely. Some ladies just giggled whilst some men came and felt the pointe shoes. Generally there is a sense of awe and inspiration and that’s what I live for.
“When I see a little kid calling her mum because she sees a man doing ballet, and then tries shakily to stand on her toes, that really warms my heart. It’s knowing that I’ve influenced someone, knowing that people have been challenged and have decided to accept what they have seen.”
Olwage has been visiting South Africa for the past few months but returns to New Zealand in early May. He’s sad to be leaving.
“I hope that more opportunities will present themselves to come back to South Africa in the future. Africa has a special place in my heart. Cape Town will always be home,” he said.