STERKRIVIER, SOUTH AFRICA - Artists are often at the forefront of social change as they use their works to address difficult political and cultural issues. While activist painters, filmmakers and musicians are probably most familiar, choreographers have also addressed social issues with their dance companies.
In South Africa, protecting the environment and cultural heritage are the focus of the annual Ballet in the Bush initiative, where American dancers recently joined international and South African ballet talent for the sake of their art and an endangered species, the rhino.
Ballet and rhinos are a duet in South Africa's Limpopo Province. Every year, dancers from South Africa and around the world - complete with tutus and pointe shoes - do a "special enclosure performance" for the calves in this rhino orphanage. The dancers in the Ballet in the Bush initiative showcase their talent, while shining a spotlight on the problem of rhino poaching.
Cuban American Prima ballerina Adiarys Almeida was among the first participating dancers in 2014.
"I was scared at first, but then it was fine," she said. "It was actually amazing to have them so close. I came back for the experience, but also for the good cause, like saving the rhinos. And I think it's just fantastic."
Raising awareness of rhinos' plight
One goal is to promote ballet in the impoverished province with the help of well-known teachers and dancers. Another is to create awareness about rhinos and the need for their protection, especially from poachers.
As night fell, about 200 people watched the fifth annual Ballet in the Bush performance. The initiative raises on average $1,400 every year.
About 50 local children join the professionals for workshops and performances. This year, Limpopo dance student Fran Makamola was one of them.
"I enjoyed the show the most. I learned a lot of new things," she said. "I also enjoyed watching the rhinos and learning about the rhinos, and that they are very special animals, and that we should care for them more."
Over the years, ballet dancers based in the U.S. have also been part of the program, said organizer and CEO of the South African International Ballet Competition, Dirk Badenhorst.
"It shows that there is this working together and willing and wantingness to help achieve in South Africa what they have achieved in the United States of America," he said.
At the rhino orphanage, substitute moms help raise and rehabilitate calves at a cost of about $850 each per month. Arrie van Deventer, founder and director of the Now Or Never African Wildlife Trust, says they're here because their mothers were killed by poachers.
"They are facing definite extinction if this carries on. So, the more people that hear this message, that hear of the plight of the rhino, the better," he said.
Partnering classical ballet with everyday issues seems to help the artform revive in Africa. Joburg Ballet's social media campaign to popularize ballet in South Africa won multiple international rewards, says Kabelo Moshapalo, executive creative director of the advertising agency TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris South Africa.
"What ballet can do is not only inform, but also educate. One piece of content that we did was around the Cape Town drought. And what we borrowed from our African context is the Rain Queen to bring to attention the plight of the environmental damage that's happened, you know, due to the shortage of water," he said.
Officials say there has been a decline in the number of reported poaching cases in South Africa. Since declining poaching statistics does not mean victory in the poaching war yet, all efforts addressing rhino conservation are welcomed.