Iris Warriors brought to life in exploration of colour

JOHN HARVEY

Guests were given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go behind the scenes of a ground-breaking new ballet film at Salt River Studios this week.

Iris Warriors has been described as “a film, a ballet, a book, but above and beyond everything else, a creation myth about the birth of colour”, and according to dance director Delia Sainsbury, the production is the first full-length ballet feature film to have been produced in South Africa.

The film is directed by Cape Town film-maker Roydon Turner, and seeks to blur the lines between the imaginary and the more realistic setting of an orphanage enduring the horrors of World War II.

The ballet focuses on the myth of the Iris Warriors, born from the union and conflict of Darkness and Light, and brings together a stellar cast of dancers drawn from across the country.

As the children huddle in the cellar, bombs crashing down above them, their teacher, Miss Shaw, tells them the story of the Iris Warriors. As they react to the unfolding tale – laughing, crying, hoping and fearing – their reactions draw in the audience.

Under the enormous roof of the studios in Voortrekker Road, guests experienced the nuanced filming techniques involved in a production of this scale and were spellbound both by the dancers and the detailed set that has been created to capture the mythical essence of Turner’s Warriors.

Between takes, some of the film’s key personnel talked the audience through the challenges and thought processes of the production, which Turner himself acknowledged as being something of an unchartered territory given the subject matter.

Taking time out from filming, he explained how he would use subtle lighting to create tension to help the audience buy into the two worlds.

“In order to reduce the space of the children’s room in the orphanage, you would dial down the colour,” he said during his presentation.

“There are lots of subliminal things happening in the film. You barely notice them, but they are there.”

Turner hopes the audience will realise that a production, such as Iris Warriors, is possible and that ballet can be translated to film.

“For us, as film-makers, it is also about giving back to the dance community. Some of our dancers need sponsorships, so hopefully this film can assist in that.”

Sainsbury, who has danced in no fewer than nine West End productions, said although she had done numerous dance films in her career, Iris Warriors had seemed like a “big challenge” when she was first approached.

“The music is incredibly difficult, and the production complex, to say the least. It is divided into eight parts, and before we could even sit down with the choreographers we had to analyse how each of these would be broken down,” she said.

The production is very specifically written. As an older choreographer myself, I might have been inclined to resort back to my comfort zone, so that was when I decided to take a risk by bringing in three very young choreographers. I did not know how this was going to turn out, but they work brilliantly together. To see this is the most fulfilling experience.”

She also paid tribute to her 18 Iris Warriors dancers.

“This whole thing is a tremendous learning curve for them, as it is not at all what they are used to. But it says so much about the level of training in South Africa. You get those people who say South African dancers are not as good as they are in the rest of the world, but let me tell you, we are.”